Les Anges du peche was Robert Bresson's first film, made in 1943, and its non-availability has been almost as inexplicable as the mystery it describes. Set largely in a convent, it shows the experiences of the novice Soeur Anne-Marie and her probationary period, where she becomes obsessed with the plight of another novice, Therese, who has come to the nunnery straight from prison, as a number do. Anne-Marie comes from a wealthy background and her reasons for being there seem hard to fathom, if not from a super-human purity. The two women are opposites, and the film explores the nature of good and evil, pride, the unknowability of anyone's purpose, the deceptiveness of appearances, and how good people can get things wrong; also how the saintly can also have faults. Set to a score that sounds a bit like Durufle's music, the film has a distinctly Romantic pull that Bresson would reject thereafter by degrees; its approach to Catholicism is a bit like that of Franz Liszt in his piano music: grand, from the heart, showing a visionary humanity. The text is suitably restrained and elevated, and the photography exquisite, in a less austere register than his other films, but still fairly pared down and making expressive use of light and shadow, foliage and bare walls. It compares interestingly with that other great film about nuns, Black Narcissus, as Anne-Marie has something of the pride that is the downfall of Sister Clodagh also; but Bresson's film is much more interested in the nuns' faith, and is a genuinely spiritual film as opposed to a psychological one. They do resonate against one another in a way that seems to amplify both, yet they could hardly be set further apart, not just in terms of altitude and being set at the opposite ends of the earth. This one is a classic also and has one of the most moving endings of any film; rarely has faith been so illuminated from within, or grace made more manifest.
Les Anges du Peche is Bresson's earliest film,containing many of the themes of his later films.In it are two of the enclosed environments,prison and convent,he was to explore in later films.He'd spent a year imprisoned by the Nazis before making it.Was the French defeat of 1940 the result of the moral decadence of the 3rd Republic?Written by Dominican Bruckberger, who developed the script with Bresson.The idea behind the salvation of Therese is the idea of saving France with the sacrifice of Anne-Marie. A wealthy young woman, Anne-Marie Lamaury, decides to follow her vocation and becomes a nun in a convent which occupies itself with the rehabilitation of female prisoners. Bresson doesn't illustrate human psychology,but the working out of redemption and spirituality.His scenes have an exemplary precision,simplicity and are weighted by religious themes. The nature of sin, the susceptibility of the human spirit to evil, and the path back to redemption are ideas which underpin much of Bresson's cinema,with its themes of imprisonment and freedom,or the spirit of France following the war.
Les Anges du Peché is a conventional film, made using standard film-making techniques with professional actors. Yet, at the same time,the film bears the unmistakable stamp of its creator, both in the film's subject matter (the necessity for redemption in spiritual fulfilment) and its directness.It treats of the idea of redemption from 2 different perspectives,that of Therese and Anne-Marie Laury.The sinner and the saint are equally deserving of spiritual renewal, and the fact that both find grace through each other is a typically Bressonesque comment that in human nature there are no absolutes in good or evil. During a prison visit,Anne_Marie meetsanother young woman Thérèse, with whom she starts to take an interest. Thérèse resolutely claims that she is innocent and rejects Anne-Marie's attentions.When she is released from prison,Therese kills the man who committed the crime for which she was sentenced. She then seeks sanctuary in Anne-Marie's convent but is unable to speak about what she has done. Anne-Marie is nonetheless determined to bring about Therese's spiritual transformation,even if she risks alienating herself from her fellow sisters.
This is a very powerful and pure work, which explores the Christian themes of self-sacrifice and redemption with a kind of intense, candid, clear-sighted conviction that one would expect from Bresson. Its story about two women who choose to join a convent, and the different reasons for doing so (one being essentially self-less and the other selfish-who is "on the run")is far more compelling than it might sound. As usual there is a brilliant precision in its film language and narrative, and it conveys its social ambiance and characters (the various nuns mostly) using Bresson's typically stripped-down, modest style which manages to be engagingly dramatic. For an atheist I also found myself completely engaged by the film's concerns because of the honest, complex and sparing way in which Bresson explored them.A tragic course is followed,in the scene where each sister receives a sentence, for Anne-Marie, if she hears a cry to remain deaf to all other voices.She succeeds not by wilfully doing good or display,only through egoless love and self sacrifice does she give Therese happiness and freedom.
This edition claims to be restored, though it seems a little dark, at least at first. The main thing, however, is that it has Korean & English sub-titles (either/or/none) not French sub-titles as described, so is more useful than it at first appears.
Robert Bresson’s 1943 directorial debut The Angels of Sin (or Les Anges Du Péché) is a remarkably assured piece of work, in effect providing a solid foundation for what was to be one of the most distinctive oeuvres of any film-maker. What is perhaps most noteworthy about Les Anges Du Péché is the consistency in its set of 'production values’ and its outstanding mise-en-scène. The film may lack some of the distinguishing features that would prove to set Bresson apart from virtually every other film-maker – perhaps most notably his later use of non-professional actors – but Les Anges’ tale of the pursuit of spiritual redemption in a Dominican priory (convent) is, of course, right at the heart of much of Bresson’s later film-making, a story compellingly told here via an erudite and perceptive script courtesy of the director, Raymond Leopold Bruckberger (himself a Dominican priest) and Jean Giraudoux, whilst Bresson’s artistic heritage is there for all to see in the film’s immaculately crafted visual qualities, for which cinematographer Philippe Agostini should also be lauded.
Following the almost noirish look-and-feel to the film’s opening 'jailbreak’ scene – as Sylvie’s (aka Louise Pauline Mainguené) stern, officious mother prioress helps 'spring’ another sinner from the local jail – Bresson sets up the film’s austere, hierarchical religious (convent) milieu brilliantly. As first Renée Faure’s 'do-gooder volunteer’, Anne-Marie, and then Jany Holt’s 'on the run’ sinner, Thérèse, (taken under Anne-Marie’s redemptive wing) take up residence, Bresson gives us some cutting ironic commentary – first from Anne-Marie’s initially doubtful believer as she questions the difference between God and criminals and then on the mother prioress’ omniscience, as, first, Anne-Marie’s personal possessions 'take a special path to the mother prioress’ and, second, as a prison warder kowtows to the mother prioress’ decrees on time-setting. Similarly, within what is the film’s stunningly cinematic convent interiors (which consistently make great use of light and shadow), Bresson gives us many memorable set-pieces, such as the moments when 'inferior’ nuns prostrate themselves, deferentially, on the floor and that where Anne-Marie canvases (by knocking on 'cell’ doors) opinions of herself from her peers, bringing into stark reality the insularity and misconceptions inherent in her new, chosen lifestyle.
At the emotional core of Bresson’s film is the increasingly desperate struggle of the 'evermore spiritual’ Anne-Marie to elicit some form of redemption from Thérèse’s (still) resentful sinner and their later scenes together are highly moving, both actresses delivering totally convincing performances.
Bresson’s film provides a perceptive (and, at times, ironic) examination of the themes of belief, oppression and rebellion within a religious context, and stands up well against other impressive films dealing with similar themes – such as Black Narcissus and (more recently) the likes of The Magdalene Sisters, Beyond The Hills and Ida. Also note that the Korean DVD version of the film provides an excellent quality viewing experience (which, for me, has not always been the case for such ‘import DVDs’).
Great film. Good insight into a nunnery at that time depicting the frictions and the fueds amough the nuns. The infighting, the jealouslies and the conflicts within this very clostaphobic atmosphere. It's in glorious black and white and beautifully filmed. So if you enjoy Robert Bresson you,ll enjoy this.