Bresson’s first serious work, Les anges du péché (1943), is all but missing his ascetic film tendencies. While absent is Bresson’s stylized punctuation — elliptical scene cuts, meticulous sound edits, and hauntingly poetic images — the film retains his sensibility. Unlike his other films, one would likely not be able to discern — from a single scene — that it is the work of Robert Bresson; however, there are meandering instances where one may see that Bresson is practicing and thereby coming into his own. As a filmmaker, Les anges du péché allowed Bresson to find his voice.
Shot in monochrome, with a rather obtuse soundtrack, Les anges du péché is rather more conventional than Bresson’s later work. Still, there are imprints of Bresson’s unique touch. The lighting in the convent, for example, causes silhouetted images to frame themselves — the nuns robes shine brightly amidst the darkness; they truly appear as angels. While the character’s express emotion, sometimes melodramatically — a fashion quite unlike Bresson — close-ups of still faces, particularly in the final scenes, share a spectacle of grace. And, though the standardly timed scene cuts give the film a more conventional rhythm, the movements and actions of characters are slowed to a more Bressonian sense of reality.
The themes of the film do indeed speak to a general Bressonian quality. Sister Anne-Marie (Renée Faure), a former criminal herself, devotes her time and enthusiasm to helping Thérèse (Jany Holt), a new recruit, find God. Her foolish desires and narrow-mindedness alienates her from the rest of the convent, until, ultimately, she is forced to leave. Upon her death-bed, Anne-Marie realizes the woes of her actions. Her isolation manifests itself in humility, a tendency of many Bressonian characters. Thérèse, though completely obstinate at first, despising Anne-Marie for her seemingly superficial good-naturedness, begins to see the light. She respectfully kisses the feet of her ‘angel’ — now literally dead — and walks silently to her fate.
The film ends with a similar tone to all of Bresson’s work — barring his premiere feature, a slapstick comedy I cannot get a hold of. There is sacrifice, humility, isolation, tragedy, and just a touch of hope. For all its spiritual and material grace, Les anges du péché speaks volumes of a brilliant career to come; it is a striking precursor to his later masterpieces.