Documentaries about artists tend not to be like other kinds of documentaries, or even other kinds of movies. Many of them are like gallery tours, with the artists and a handful of their greatest admirers walking viewers through a presentation of the work. That's the case with Heinz Bütler's Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Impassioned Eye. It isn't a biography of the legendary photographer, and it's not exactly an essay. Mostly, Bütler fills the screen with Cartier-Bresson's photographs while people explain their greatness.
The lineup of devotees is impressive. Arthur Miller, Isabelle Huppert, and colleagues like Elliott Erwitt and Josef Koudelka all flip through the master's collection and talk about his fascination with people struggling to find a comfortable place in the jagged landscapes left behind by capitalism and fascism. Cartier-Bresson's camera captured images from the Spanish Civil War and Nazi-occupied France, as well as famous folk from Marilyn Monroe to Mahatma Gandhi. But even more than what he shot, Cartier-Bresson's reputation was defined by the way he shot. He employed an on-the-spot, unforced style that accepted images as is, with no photographer interference. The difference, one of Bütler's interviewees explains, was that Cartier-Bresson knew what to look for, and how to frame it.
Still, The Impassioned Eye seems an ironic title to attach to a movie about Cartier-Bresson, given how he repeatedly stressed a detached interest in his subjects, aside from their placement in his geometrical compositions. Arthur Miller insists that Cartier-Bresson's studies of the American underclass are "tragic," but the photographer himself—interviewed for the documentary shortly before his death in 2004—says he was never trying to prove anything with his work. He sums up the art of photography thus: "You see, you feel, and the surprised eye responds." Given that Cartier-Bresson plied his trade in multiple global hot spots, where human suffering was at a peak, the fact that he considered his work in terms of its aesthetic value rather than its political purpose is a topic worth pursuing, maybe to the point of debate. Instead, Bütler maintains a staid, steady pace, with still more pictures, and still more chatter about the pictures, and nothing challenging said.