Les Anges du Péché (Angels of Sin) (Robert Bresson, 1943)
The well-off, good intentioned Anne-Marie joins a convent that works to rehabilitate female prisoners and immediately zealously tries to ‘save’ Thérèse, an obstinate and devious-minded recent releasé who no one yet realizes is hiding out for a new crime she has committed.
While Angels of Sin may not reach the elevated spiritual heights of later masterpieces like Pickpocket or Au Hasard Balthazar, it’s interesting to see already with this first film, so much of Bresson’s aesthetic approach (and preferred imagery) already developing, with some of it even already fully formed. The film’s perspective is, as is most of the filmmaker’s output, rigidly Catholic and yet, where his later works feel much more about spiritual recovery and transcendence not always directly attached to the religion (even if the chosen methods of forgiveness and humility and enlightenment are all particularly true to it) — set in milieus, for instance, of a city dwelling pickpocket or of a rural cruelly-treated donkey — that this one takes place directly within a convent (and with a reverent tone towards the ruling Mother inhabitants) makes it feel much more specific, and ultimately less magnificent, then the later work. In fact, if you just read the plot synopsis, you could easily mistake it for a Sunday morning American religious TV movie selling God and Religion, no questions asked (or expected).
Of course, however, it’s Bresson’s austere, minimalist (already there in spades) approach that sets it apart from the more deliberately comforting and far less intellectually engaging attempt at selling God that the Sunday morning shows bring. Though the duplicitous Thérèse (played with an animalistic cunning belying the much more blank, yet deeply fascinating, performances that would be common to the director as he moved away in his later work from using professional actors) does ultimately find spiritual peace and transcendence with Anne-Marie dying in her arms while giving her final nun vows (yeah, as I said, if you didn’t know better, this could easily be a Sunday morning melodrama), it’s things such as the final image that creates that Bressonian clash between mortal imprisonment and spiritual freedom, as Thérèse’s hands (similar to the shot in Pickpocket) are locked into handcuffs for the crime she has committed. It’s not meant ironically, but it is nonetheless. Freedom on a spiritual level comes with a price and responsibility. It ain’t free.
Along with the detail of her hands being cuffed (with those kinds of close-ups — on hands, on small acts of cruelty — eventually growing in greater importance in his work as he moved away more and more from having performers ‘parrot’ emotion), there’s also the overall austere direction and the non-traditional approach of minimizing the ‘physical’ conflict in dramatic scenes (for example, the choice to not see either the man who sells the gun to Thérèse or the man she shoots – with the former, we only hear his voice and, for the latter, we only see his shadow) as a way to reinforce Thérèse’s ‘spiritual’ journey and (initially) dark path.
Man, if only those Sunday morning movies had gotten a filmmaker like Bresson to make them! I’d be a true believer by now.