Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Les Anges Du Péché ( 1943 ) aka Angels of Sin

"If you hear God's word joining you to another, listen to no other words - they are merely its echo." - St. Catherine of Siena

Director Robert Bresson's first feature film, the underrated gem Les Anges du Péché aka Angels of Sin, explores the indistinguishable line between will and chance and the effect people have in determining each other's destinies, a theme that resonated throughout Bresson's later works ( The Diary of a Country Priest, A Man Escaped ). 

The story follows Sœur Anne-Marie ( Renée Faure ) a young bourgeois-born novice at a Dominican convent who is convinced that she was sent by God to save the soul of Sœur Thérèse ( Jany Holt ), an impenitent murderess who joins the order to seek shelter from the police. 

Father Bruckberger, an acquaintance of Bresson's, had suggested he read "The Dominicans of the Prisons" by Father Lelong and proposed a film about the Sisters of Bethany in France, an order of nuns devoted to working with female ex-convicts. The order, founded in 1866, gives these women the opportunity to overcome the sins that led them to become criminals. Some choose to remain at the convent and become nuns while others venture on to begin a new life. 

Although Bresson was ignorant of Bethany, he was intrigued by the premise and developed an engrossing scenario around it that weaves in key elements that Bresson would return to in every subsequent film he made. He was particularly fascinated with the theme of two lives coming together and forging a preordained course, one which ends in redemption for both. 
While Sœur Anne-Marie is the main character in Les Anges du Péché and dominates the majority of the scenes, her presence is merely a clever red-herring from Bresson for the film is truly about Sœur Thérèse. It is her soul's redemption that is the driving force of the picture, and all the events that take place at the abbey from the day of her arrival act as stepping stones of grace leading up to her redemption. 

In one scene, the nuns gather for a ceremony where each sister receives a maxim, a randomly chosen quote, that will become their motto for the year. These maxims miraculously suit the personality of each sister. St. Catherine's quote about hearing "God's word joining you to another" is handed to Anne-Marie and has a particularly awe-inspiring effect upon her because she felt an invisible Hand drawing her towards the prison, specifically towards Thérèse, ever since she arrived at the convent. 
Evidently, Sœur Anne-Marie's heavenly calling to save such a lost lamb as Thérèse was conceived before she even meets her, but she ultimately succeeds in her task only when she comes to recognize her own failures and humble herself. Her optimistic determination to accomplishing what she considers God's will, and her pride in her divine vocation, others perceive merely as sinful arrogance. She recognizes this when she subjects herself to "sisterly correction", and goes cell to cell asking each sister "How do you value me?". She finds that they see her as being selfish, ambitious, and showing no understanding of others. The nuns do not recognize her irrepressible fervor as being a sign of deeper spirituality. Only Thérèse refuses to rebuke her. 

Thérèse considers herself dead to sin. She is unrepentant. She has accomplished her murderous act of revenge towards the man who let her be wrongfully incarcerated and is now the most obedient nun at the convent, finding life there preferable - if not dissimilar - to life imprisonment. Yet, she is impatient with Anne-Marie's chastenings and is relieved when the prioress sends Anne-Marie away from the convent, not realizing that even that act is simply another step leading her towards her preordained destiny - the path of redemption.

Robert Bresson would later favor a sparse naturalistic approach to filming, using a minimum amount of background music, little dialogue, and completely renouncing professional actors. Les Anges du Péché and Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne ( 1945 ) were the only two films he made with professional actors, a choice which he strangely regretted. Bresson, who in his Notes cautioned himself against drawing "tears from the public with the tears of your models" failed to realize that naturalism can only entertain to a point. Its novelty wears off and the audience yearns for entertainment that can be appreciated repeatedly. 

The performances of Renée Faure, Jany Holt, and Louise Sylvie ( as La Prieure ) are expressive and beautiful and add depth to the characters in such a subtle way that non-professional actors could not have accomplished. Holt, in particular, gives a touching understated performance while Faure is convincingly innocent and saintlike.
A strong supporting cast ( Mila Parély, Silvia Monfort, Louis Seigner ), gorgeous cinematography by Philippe Agostini, and a powerful score by Jean-Jacques Grünenwald add up to making this an impressive directorial debut from Bresson and a true French cinema classic. 

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