Les Anges du Péché (1943)
Robert Bresson’s small, fiercely individual, rigorous body of cinema is held in the highest regard in large part because he laboured to detach his filmmaking from all fashion. His ultimate decision to follow in the footsteps of the neorealists and employ as few professional actors as possible to better realise his dream of cinema enabled purely through pictorial intensity defined most of his mature work. But his first two features, Les Anges du Péché and Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (1945), were made under more conventional circumstances. Conventional might be a slightly prejudicial word in this regard: both films are obviously the products of a great filmic imagination arriving fully-formed in the midst of the straitened yet creative circumstances of Occupation-era French cinema, and many other directors would give their right arms to have made movies half as good. If Jean Renoir is French film’s Falstaff, Bresson is most definitely its Hamlet, pensively contemplating his characters’ squalid situations and desperate desire to grasp even the finest thread of transcendence. But Bresson’s reputation as a dour and stringent, almost monkish cinema mystic is a bit misleading, at least to the extent that his viewpoint is not one of detachment. The overwhelming empathy of his cinema yearns for close identification with his subjects, to all but realign the viewer’s sensatory systems with those of his protagonists.
Bresson had made a short film, Public Affairs, in 1934, and had written screenplays for a few films through the 1930s, but was chiefly a painter and photographer until World War II, when he spent over a year in a POW camp. Les Anges du Péché, like Bresson’s later, perhaps best-known film Diary of a Country Priest (1951), tackles religious faith directly as a subject, strictly analysing the way such faith is defined amidst and challenged by dissonances of individual character and social context. Bresson worked on the script with noted dramatist Jean Giraudoux and Dominican priest Raymond Leopold Bruckberger. Their story revolves around a convent of Dominican nuns who dedicate themselves to aiding women coming out of prison, with many of those women eventually subsumed into their ranks. The title, usually translated as Angels of Sin, has a double meaning, as it also invokes pêche, peach, the fruit the nuns grow in their garden, proving the cultivation of irony is something these religious ladies appreciate, especially considering they bury their dead, including the order’s founder Father Lataste, in the same garden. The Occupation is the subtext, of course, as the few glimpses of the world outside the convent portrays the world as a prison filled with people either desperate for sanctuary or brimming over with self-poisoning anger and fantasies of revenge.
The convent Prioress (Sylvie) and aides stage their interventions for newly-released prisoners with the careful planning and timing of Resistance missions, to outwit agents of the enemy, in this case emissaries of the underworld or abusive spouses and relations who want to reclaim their charges. The nuns perform one of these missions at the outset, a proto-noir sequence of murky fogs rolling sonorously through a nocturnal city, with assailed points of light and blank utilitarian edifices where the shadows are not threats but momentary protective harbours. The central figure here is not one of the rescued women but Anne-Marie (Renée Faure), a daughter of the prosperous class who sees it as her mission to aid the desperate and assailed. Taking her place as a novice in the convent, she soon joins the Prioress on a trip to the prison and encounters Thérèse (Jany Holt), a bitter and rebellious prisoner who rages against her captors’ needling, and gets herself hurled into solitary confinement after a purely reactive escape attempt, wailing from her cell like the personification of all the world’s woe.
Anne-Marie becomes convinced it’s her appointed task to aid Thérèse when her time for release comes, and win her over to the side of the angels. But Thérèse proceeds with her long-harboured desire to track down her former lover, the man she blames for her two-year incarceration, and kill him. Then she comes to the convent and begs to be included in their number, but maintains a cagey, challenging demeanour as she quietly bullies the other nuns and manipulates Anne-Marie. She turns Anne-Marie against the Prioress’s adjutant Mère Saint-Jean (Marie-Hélène Dasté), who maintains a critical and corrective demeanour and eventually bans Anne-Marie from prison visits. Saint-Jean feels the novice is motivated too much by her need to put her own sense of vanity as worker of personal crusades ahead of the necessary labour of being one member of a commune, a self-dramatizing rich-kid enacting her own passion play. Frustrated and resentful, Anne-Marie begins a quiet war with Saint-Jean, seeing the convent rules as merely hampering her dedication and enforced by hypocrites. Eventually, Anne-Marie's intransigence obliges the convent leadership to eject her.
Bresson’s religious sensitivity was authentic, but far from naïve or straightforward. As in Diary of a Country Priest the question as to where self-appointed, morbidly fixated saintliness and actual divine guidance diverge is examined in Les Anges du Péché without any trite demarcations. Finally Anne-Marie’s long-suffering companions and witnesses are compelled to accept her back and learn by her ardent example purely because they’re not sure where the line is either, and decide passion is its own truth. Bresson’s camera notes the processions of the convent’s inhabitants with their contrasting uniforms as if they’re a mobile barricade, the thin black-and-white line guarding against a universe of evils, both within and without. Mère Saint-Jean’s pet black cat becomes an actor in the battle of wills between Anne-Marie and her fellows, as the animal is object of both fond indulgence and annoyance to the nuns. The animal’s colouring sees the object of medieval superstition nestled close to the bosom of the holy commune much like its formerly sinful denizens, whilst also provoking the eye as a blot of inkiness in the midst of the convent’s serenely curving arches, strong pillars, and white-painted aisles. An overwrought and feverishly righteous Anne-Marie eventually delivers a tirade describing the animal as Beelzebub, arrogantly stalking the convent halls.
Bresson’s fascination for the vicissitudes and rigours of this subculture looks forward to Fred Zinneman’s The Nun’s Story (1959), although Zinneman’s cool and critical feel for the sublimation of self into rhythm is exchanged for Bresson’s yen for the fervent, self-sufficient kingdom of faith blooming within whitewashed walls. There are flourishes of mutual intellectual provocation, as when the nuns are handed up randomly harvested quotes from various philosophers and theologians to take as their personal mottos for the year, and the improvised quorums to debate questions of moral purpose that become laced with aspects of interpersonal resentment and rivalry. Bresson means to test any notion that this is a sterile and onerous world of mere repetition and obedience, but the ponderous weight of its ritual and hidebound aspects are noted too, and we see Anne-Marie has some good cause to be frustrated too. The film also has similarities both overt and subtle to Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s Black Narcissus (1946). Both films sustain overtones of parable for the sense of idealistic mission sustained like a guttering candle throughout the evil years of war but see the intimate danger from inchoate forces within in swamping that project, forces that contend ever with idealistic creeds in large part because they feel just as potent, as sexual fervour and lunacy can be just as ethereally inviting and immersing as the promise of holy blessing. But where Powell and Pressburger used both such extremes to disrupt, Bresson offers Thérèse as the serpent in paradise who nonetheless is no wilful demon, but the worldly spirit in all its challenging contempt for airy principles and real, abyssal agony in the face of treachery and suffering. Thérèse counters Anne-Marie’s desire for transcendence a longing for a state of perfect, stoic indifference, that is, the disinterest of the dead in the midst of life.
The looming threat of a cruel and punitive world is constantly invoked in cutaways to the police investigating Thérèse’s murder and tracking her down. These asides feel faintly reminiscent of the sideways glances at cop business in Le Samourai (1967), and surely Bresson and Jean-Pierre Melville shared the Occupation-era sense that all authority was a great smothering blanket. Anne-Marie and Thérèse’s faces glimpsed in stark opposition through prison bars write a rough draft for Pickpocket (1959)’s fixated images of suffering and self-castigating entrapment. The convent superiors, upon realising they harbour a killer, essentially shrug: their job is transmuting sin into service, not punishing it. Bresson’s celebration of this act of refused collaboration is remarkably plain -- what knowing grins and deep grimaces it must have stoked in the cinema audience of 1943. Deep-focus shots in the garden that blend the living vigil of uniformed nuns, the crucifixes marking the resting places of the dead, and the lush arrays of growing orchard trees, feel reminiscent of silent movie compositions, like something out of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1922) or Wings (1927) in the attempt to convey a sense of natural circles whilst confronting the damage of conflict – infusing this film with a war movie’s totemic depiction of sacrifice and renewed fecundity. But the external struggle framed initially in terms of silhouetted villains and stout warriors for God soon segues into interior battle.
Great ructions are signalled through small acts of everyday chaos – a cat tossed bodily out through a door to land fierce and offended on a tiled floor, a pile of firewood knocked over. Whilst he would later strain to be naturalistic, if in a carefully manipulated manner, here Bresson abstracts his drama in a manner that suggests the lingering influence of expressionism and the poetic realists, and aspects of modern art. The blank wall out of a Chirico or Dali painting along which the initial rescue mission plays out accords with Bresson’s refusal to show the faces of either the man who sells Thérèse her gun nor the man she uses it on, mere way-stations on the journey she’s taking into the blank and boding landscape of moral warfare. The outside world becomes fearful dream where external provocations mean less than the impact on the interior world, and the convent is both trap and island where the sublime beckons but hell is also most definitely other people. The desire to remove self from propitious acts in the name of sanctity demands ritualised humiliations and acts of obeisance, which quickly tunes Anne-Marie’s conceit to a fine twitching fury as she obligated to kneel at the door of each of her fellow sisters’ cells and accept their judgement. All except for Thérèse, who carefully bolsters Anne-Marie’s sense of distinction, all the better for stoking the sort of pride presaging the fall. Anne-Marie gains her payback with exploiting the system to laden her fellows with penances for petting the cat.
Holt had starred in one of the films Bresson had written in the ‘30s, Southern Carrier (1937), and surely Bresson remembered her from there; her unnervingly committed performance, eyes blazing with mortal contempt, anticipates Maria Casares’ role as the similarly vengeful if less overtly destructive embodiment of feminine will in Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne as well as the embittered Countess of Diary of a Country Priest. Meanwhile Faure’s Anne-Marie is borne aloft on flourishes of such visionary compulsion that her fellows can’t tell if she’s insane or enthralled. Her expulsion from the convent is described as her act of sacrifice by the Prioress. Anne-Marie sneaks back into the convent through a hole in the fence and live on the peaches that grow there, gaining her crown of thorns – the nuns try to block the hole with thorny plants – and a Gethsemane before finishing up sprawled in a pieta after a rainstorm that drowns and mimics her tears and breaks her body, but finally delivers her up to a detached and comprehending state that signifies the getting of real wisdom. This drives Thérèse first to furious repudiation in anger at long having an unwitting enabler and then at last to her own self-sacrificing gesture.
The final act’s portrait of Anne-Marie’s success in death and Thérèse’s rediscovery of her moral self feels in spite of all the excellence leading up to them a touch affected by Bresson’s standards, lacking the powerful sense of real breakthrough that renders the triumphs of A Man Escaped (1956) or Pickpocket so genuinely affecting, or the frustrations of Diary of a Country Priest so gruelling, in part because Bresson’s sense of character has been so exact in examining Anne-Marie and Thérèse that they feel like awkward avatars for a traditional sort of didactic resolution, and also because Anne-Marie’s eventual expiring from fever seems all too dainty compared to the evocation of slow rot from inside out in Diary of a Country Priest. But Bresson’s imagery remains strong until the very fade-out. A shot of Thérèse marching down a stairway lined by fellows in various poses of prayer recreates a shot Cecil B. DeMille favoured in The Sign of the Cross (1932) and The Crusades (1935) in symbolising ascent to salvation is both recreated and pointedly inverted: Bresson’s path to real salvation demands moving down to be immersed in the muck and the wretched who squirm in it, to not flinch from any frontier one’s fumbling explorations lead one to. The last image of silver cuffs clapping around Thérèse’s wrists conveys perverse liberation, blazes a trail through to Pickpocket and The Trial of Joan of Arc (1963) and the confrontation with the ultimate test of faith. Dark Habits (1984) is Pedro Almodovar's remake-cum-lampoon.