Originally published on In Review Online, this review is one piece of the critical retrospective on Bresson's films.
While the rest of Europe was embroiled in World War II and France itself occupied, Robert Bresson was entangled in other issues. In 1943, Bresson was busy planting more timeless seeds of moral and social query in his first feature film, Angles of the Streets. Built around themes that would hold his attention for the next four decades, Angels of the Streets draws heavily from his religious beliefs as a Catholic to create his most formally conventional film.
Anne-Marie (Renee Faure) is a strong-willed and prideful young woman from a wealthy family who hears a higher calling. She renounces the material world and devotes herself to a Dominican congregation dedicated to the reformation of women prisoners. Her high-spirited and out-spoken ideas gain the praise of some and the disdain of others. Her compassion and eagerness comes to a crest when she meets Thérèse (Jany Holt), an angry prisoner who shows little chance for reform. Anne-Marie makes it her goal to save Thérèse and take her under her wing. But Thérèse has other fish to fry upon her release, namely to shoot the man who duped her.
Bresson finds his most visually poetic moment in Angels when Thérèse goes to seek her revenge. She shows up in a dark hallway of an apartment building to confront the man who had her locked up. Draped in shadow, she knocks on the door and when the door opens, a halo of light pours out on Thérèse. She becomes the visual embodiment of an “angel of sin” (the literal translation of the French title Les anges du péché.) The man only exists in voice, as the camera, trained on Thérèse, never reveals his face. He is only a vehicle for Thérèse to find sin and delivery from it.
Seeking refuge for her crime, Thérèse arrives at the doorstep of the convent with no interest in saving anyone but herself. Anne-Marie is beside herself with joy, thinking that Thérèse wishes to be absolved. Anne-Marie doesn’t see that there are more devious forces at work behind her back. Naïve of other’s manipulations, her altruism for doing God’s work blinds her to other’s bad intentions. Falling from grace at the convent, she is expelled. Unable to return to her worldly life, she secretly holds vigil at the grave of Father Lataste, the founder of the congregation. The sisters find Anne-Marie unconscious from exhaustion, and make a hopeless effort to nurse her back to health. Even on her deathbed, Anne-Marie stays committed to Thérèse‘s salvation.
The final scene to the Angels of the Street oddly mirrors the end sequence of L’Argent, Bresson’s final film made forty years later. Thérèse, having just spoken the final vows for Anne-Marie, turns herself in for the crime she committed. As she walks past her sisters in a state of resolve, she is nothing less than ideological twin to Yvon who will make the same walk through a pub after murdering a family. Her deliverance, exactly like Yvon’s, relies on sacrifice—in this case the benevolent sacrifice of Anne-Marie. The two women are counterpoints of freewill and determinism as well as virtue and vice, and how in a Bressonian world those attributes are freely exchanged between characters.
Dripping with symbolic melodrama, Angels of the Street involves more emoting than you are likely to find in any other Bresson film. Employing professional actors, Angels is far from the austere characterizations he utilized in later years. Renee Faure offers a robust and glowing performance as Anne-Marie, plying for the tears that theoretically troubled Bresson so much. The overwrought sentimentality strikes a somber tone and without a fully capable cast, ‘Angels’ would be unable to transcend so gracefully into the 21st century. It is unlikely to cause any tears, but more importantly its over-the-top drama will not force any laughs.
Although Angels may be lacking in the traditional style that Bresson was later so well known, it is nonetheless a study in formalism. Relying on his training at a painter, Bresson frames every scene as if it was his last. Exquisitely composed, every shot glows in his lush use of black and white.
The resonance that Angels of the Streets has on the rest of Bresson’s career is quite astounding. Direct reverberations can be seen in Diary of a Country Priest (1951), The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962), and L’Argent (1983). For most directors, a first feature can be clumsy exhibition of hesitant narrative and loose style, but that is hardly the case with Bresson. He is just as conscientious and resolute with Angels as he is with any of his subsequent films. Solid in style and prophetic in subject, Angels of the Street was less of a launch and more of landing for one of the most unwavering careers in filmmaking.
Angels of the Street isn't exactly the easiest film to see. Rarely included in retrospectives, it is probably one of the more obscure Bresson films. Those with a little cash need not look any further than France for an exquisite DVD that includes English subtitles. The extras, including a book with the full script, will require you to dig deep for your la connaissance française.