In a career that spanned over forty years, Robert Bresson directed only thirteen feature films—plus a single short: not a large body of work for a man who ranks high in the critics’ pantheon of cinema gods. Bresson never had a major box office success; after his second feature, he ceased working with professional actors entirely. He died in 1999 at the age of 98 after more than fifteen years of frustration trying to find funding for a film based on the Book of Genesis. Those may be the closed parentheses of what can be read as a circumscribed career; but the films themselves redefine the very essence of cinema for every generation that gets mired down or lost in the persiflage of mere technical innovation. Bresson's films are stripped bare, reductive, proving time and again that a film is (as he says) nothing more than a visual dialogue between the camera and an expressive human face.
The intimate screens of the Film Forum in New York City are perfect host to his human-scale films. It recently ran a new 35mm print of Bresson’s third feature, his first one made with “non-actors,” shot in his hallmark style of long takes and with a reduced shot grammar: the 1951 Diary of a Country Priest, adapted from a novel by Georges Bernanos.
Coming out of a late afternoon screening with my friend, writer Bill Wilson, we were surprised to see a line of ticketholders already waiting for the first evening screening. It snaked through the lobby, out the doors and west along Houston St. toward Sixth Avenue. It was a weekday and the film had already been running several weeks; it was surprising to see such a large turnout for a sixty year old film about a sickly, reclusive French provincial priest whose daily mass is often attended by a single old lady.
Bresson’s name may not be prominent in many Hollywood databases, but his enduring respect by critics and cineastes continues unabated. In 1998, the Cinemateque Ontario at the AGO presented what became a traveling retrospective (it played at LACMA) of all the Bresson features, in new 35mm. prints, with a simultaneous critical anthology edited by James Quant, who provides an introduction linking the essays.
The book includes Andre Bazin’s seminal, philosophical essay on Diary of a Country Priest as well as Paul Schrader’s interview with the director, published in Film Comment in 1977, an interview conducted shortly after the publication of Schrader’s own book Transcendental Style in Film.
When I saw Bill Wilson a few days later he gave me a small book written by Bresson called Notes on the Cinematographer. It’s about the size of your wallet and aside from a brief introduction, its 140 pages and more than 450 “notes” consist of nothing more than aphorisms, many no more than a single sentence, some even fragments. It expresses the director’s thoughts on the nature of cinema, a kind of Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book of film style. Many of these pensées reflect his own theories on what separates film from theater, on the advantage of using non-actors over actors, and on the necessity of striving for constant clarity and simplicity through a rigorous reductive process. Many of the notes are meant for himself, goads and reminders to stay true to his original intentions.
Critics often wrongly perceive Bresson as an arid intellectual, whose non-actors (he calls them “models) and insistent lack of florid camera and editing techniques, give the mainstream commercial audience little satisfaction for their ticket price. There is a short YouTube video, an interview with Bresson (then almost 60) made for French TV shortly after the release of his 1959 film Pickpocket, a film that had direct influence on Schrader’s film American Gigolo. (Paul and I watched Pickpocket numerous times on VHS cassette.) The interviewers are France Roche and François Chalais. They seem like the harsh interrogators from a Bresson film such as The Trial of Joan of Arc, A Man Escaped or Pickpocket. Despite constant interruptions by the interviewers, Bresson patiently explains his working methods, discussing the pre-eminent role of performances that emphasize movement and gesture over thought. Bresson often shot many takes, gradually stripping all affectation and intention from his models, intentions that he felt were almost genetic for professional actors.
Because Bresson insists on a reductive film grammar (employing a 40mm. lens that approximates the perspective of the human eye, as discussed by cinematographer L-H Burel in one of the essays in the Quant anthology) his “models” are laid bare before us. Bresson’s intention is not forensic, psychic scrutiny (for which he has been wrongly criticized) but for an empathic identification with these tabula rasa characters, as though we the audience occupy an enclosed cinematic space with the actors. Everything is pared away that prevents the viewer from entering into their drama. Contrary to what Susan Sontag avers in her essay in the Quant anthology, this reductive technique achieves the opposite of a Brechtian alienation effect.
The title of Bresson’s little book can be confusing if you think he is talking about cinematography as we normally use the term. It is not a treatise about camera style or about the work of the cameraman. Bresson’s “cinematographer” is the film’s “auteur,” the principal creator of the film’s vision. In his world this is the director, but like the New Wave critics turned directors that grew from his shadow and who attacked the older French “tradition of quality,” the director is not necessarily a Bressonian “cinematographer.” Sometimes, in the anonymity of much commercial cinema, he’s little more than a puffed-up traffic cop moving actors around, while fending off harrying producers.
After Bill Wilson gave me Bresson’s Notes I carried it around in my coat pocket, pulling it out to read on a cross-town Manhattan bus or on the subway out to Brooklyn. I made pencil asterisks next to notes that struck me as I read. Another survey would surely elicit different asterisks. So, here is a totally random sampling of my readthrough, with no intent to categorize them as to arching theme or subject. Any comment I have is in non-italicized parenthesis after the quote.
It is with something clean and precise that you will force the attention of inattentive eyes and ears.
The faculty of using my resources well diminishes when their number grows.
An image must be transformed by contact with other images as is a color by contact with other colors. A blue is not the same blue beside a green, a yellow, a red. No art without transformation.
Two persons, looking each other in the eye, see not their eyes but their looks. The reason why we get the color of a person’s eyes wrong?
Radically suppress intentions in your models [actors].
Not to use two violins when one is enough.
A whole made of good images can be detestable.
Nine-tenths of our movements obey habit and automatism. It is anti-nature to subordinate them to will and to thought. (To me, this is the pithiest refutation I have ever found to an actor’s sometimes declaration of intentionality. Stop thinking. DO.)
Your film—let people feel the soul and the heart there, but let it be made like a work of hands.
How hide from oneself the fact that it all ends up on a rectangle of white fabric hung on a wall? See your film as a surface to cover. (Bresson was a painter before he was a filmmaker and the metaphors of painting suffuse his writing.)
What no human eye is capable of catching, no pencil, brush, pen of pinning down, your camera catches without knowing what it is, and pins it down with a machine’s scrupulous indifference. (This is an exciting affirmation of the potential for creativity that resides in every camera setup, of the transformative power of the artistic eye.)
A flood of words does a film no harm. A matter of kind, not quantity. (Many of Bresson’s films are rich in dialogue, richer even in voice-over, a device he sees as complementary to, not antithetical to, the image.)
Don’t run after poetry. It penetrates unaided through the joins (edits).
Don’t let your background (avenues, squares, public gardens, subway) absorb the faces you are applying to them. (So much for Bresson’s thoughts on “production value.”)
Hide the ideas, but so that people find them. The most important will be the most hidden.
Music takes up all the room and gives no increased value to the image to which it is added. (A cautionary note to many directors of today's action-packed movies, whose shots seem to be only visual accents to an ear-splitting music score.)
The soundtrack invented silence. (Yes. Silent films were shown with wall-to-wall music, if only from a rickety pit piano. The choice of silence came only with sound.)
Of lighting: things made more visible not by more light, but by the fresh angle at which I regard them.
Images chosen in prevision of their inner association. (A simple call to consider the emotive, internalized impact of our images, not just the visceral, physical ones.)
An old thing becomes new if you detach it from what usually surrounds it. (Fight tropes. Search for new associations.)
If the eye is entirely won, give nothing or almost nothing to the ear. One cannot be at the same time all eye and all ear. (Trust the images you create. Music does not always enlarge their power.)
When a sound can replace an image, cut the image or neutralize it. The ear goes more towards the within, the eye towards the outer. (Music is psychic, even spiritual. No matter how metaphoric we intend the image to be, it is rooted in the physical world.)
Actors: the nearer they approach on the screen with their expressiveness, the further away they get. Houses, trees come nearer, the actors go away.
To be constantly changing lenses in photographing is like constantly changing one’s glasses. (I immediately think of how many of the great photojournalists past and present employ a single fixed focal length lens.)
In this language of images, one must lose completely the notion of image. The images must exclude the idea of image. (Sounds like a Zen koan, but it is a simple declaration of the primacy of emotive engagement.)
The sight of movement gives happiness: horse, athlete, bird.
From the being and things of nature, washed clean of all art and especially of the art of drama, you will make an art.
Because you do not have to imitate, like painters, sculptors, novelists, the appearance of persons and objects (cameras do that for you), your creation or invention confines itself to the ties you knot between the various bits of reality caught. There is also the choice of the bits. Your flair decides. (In a sense, the “capture” of the image is not what you do. It is merely the record of the artistic process that precedes it.)
To translate the invisible wind by the water it sculpts in passing. (Bresson in his best koan mode.)
Slow films in which everyone is galloping and gesticulating; swift films in which people hardly stir. (If a single sentence could express Bresson’s belief in the efficacy of the considered, quiet image, this is it.)
Not beautiful photography, not beautiful images, but necessary images and photography. (A call to invisible cinematography, antithetical to the accolades of one’s peers.)
Shooting. You will not know till much later if your film is worth the mountain range of efforts it is costing you.
Expression through compression. To put into an image what a writer would spin out over ten pages.
Make the objects look as if they want to be there.
Be as ignorant of what you are going to catch, as is a fisherman of what is at the end of his fishing rod. The fish that arises out of nowhere. (Preparation, even pre-visualization is the mantra before us when we begin a film. Bresson says to be prepared to abandon preparation when the “fish” jumps out at you as you are looking through the lens.)
Bach at the organ, admired by a pupil, answered: “It’s a matter of striking the notes at exactly the right moment.”
Is it for singing always the same song that the nightingale is so admired?
Equality of all things. Cezanne painting with the same eye and the same soul a fruit dish, his son, the Montagne Sainte-Victoire.
Build your film on white, on silence and on stillness.
If you are not acquainted with Bresson’s films, much of the above may seem to you like so much vaporous French cinematic cant. But here is a scene from Pickpocket, a montage of heists featuring the Dostoevskian central figure of Michel (“model” Martin LaSalle). The physical, specific, restrained imagery that Bresson calls for fairly jumps off the screen even in the flurry of his camera movements, atypical as they are.
Here also is a link to the French trailer and to the Criterion Collection DVD.
Bresson was not of the French New Wave any more than was Jean-Pierre Melville. But they are vital and visceral godfathers to it. Bresson may have been writing of those emerging directors when he wrote this:
The future of cinematography belongs to a new race of young solitaries who will shoot films by putting their last penny into it and not let themselves be taken in by the material routines of the trade.
But he could have just as easily been writing of today’s young filmmakers, intent on fulfilling their cinematic visions, even with a Canon 5D or with iPhone video. In fact, given the almost Jansenist asperity of Bresson’s aesthetics, it is easy to imagine how he may have embraced the minimalist profile of some of today’s smallest video cameras, almost hidden from view of his country priest.
Next week: The contemporary painter Eddie Martinez