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Obituary

Robert Bresson; French Director of Spare, Spiritual Films

December 22, 1999|KEVIN THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"Au Hasard, Balthazar" ("By Chance, Balthazar") (1966) is one of Bresson's finest, most demanding films, a remorseless, fascinating allegory that hinges upon a donkey being passed from owner to owner in a drab provincial town. Bresson goes way beyond the obvious man's cruelty to animals as a metaphor to suggest mankind's infinite capacity for selfishness, greed, ignorance and hypocrisy, as revealed in the donkey Balthazar's various owners.

No director as rigorous and idiosyncratic as Bresson, who was a handsome, aristocratic-looking man with silver-white hair, could be expected to have the influence on Hollywood filmmakers of an Akira Kurosawa, for example, or a Federico Fellini. But he did influence screenwriter and director Paul Schrader deeply, both as a film theorist and as a filmmaker. Among Schrader's films, "American Gigolo" (1980) reflects Bresson's influence the most strongly, as Richard Gere, in the title role, develops an increasing longing for spiritual redemption the more he succeeds as a paid lover of wealthy women.

Not much is known of Bresson's youth. and until recently he was believed to have been born in 1901 in the Auvergne. A devout Catholic, he studied philosophy and painting at the Beaux Arts but was soon drawn to the cinema, becoming a screenwriter. He became a prisoner of war in Germany in March 1940, and after repatriation to France in June 1941, he began work on his first film as a director as well as a writer, "Les Anges du Peche" ("Angels of Sin") (1943), set in a convent and said to be a portent of all the films that were to follow.

As the years passed Bresson continued experimenting in his style and concerned himself increasingly with the challenges facing young people. He ended his career with the terse, bristling "L'Argent," in which the refusal of a Parisian playboy's rich father to give him an allowance has a domino-like effect. Inspired by a Tolstoy short story, the film is neither a demonstration of the axiom that money is the root of all evil nor a Marxist tract. Instead, the plight of an innocent man falsely accused of knowingly passing phony money evolves into a contemplation of free will and fate.

In the years of professional inactivity that followed "L'Argent," Besson's reputation grew stronger with revivals of his films and retrospectives of his career taking place worldwide. In 1975 Bresson wrote "Notes on Cinematography," revealing his thoughts on filmmaking. Yet he was fond of quoting painter Paul Cezanne: "I paint, I work, I think of nothing."

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