THE MOST COMMON starting point for thinking about the measured, quiet films of Robert Bresson is a 1964 essay by that champion of style, Susan Sontag. First published in The Seventh Art, “Spiritual Style in the Films of Robert Bresson” positions the French auteur as the most restrained of his contemporaries: the cutting Spanish surrealist Luis Buñuel; the grim Swedish dramatist Ingmar Bergman; the delightful Italian fantasist Federico Fellini.
“The reason that Bresson is not generally ranked according to his merits,” writes Sontag, “is that the tradition to which his art belongs, the reflective or contemplative, is not well understood.” It’s a tradition that, in Sontag’s words, “imposes a certain discipline on the audience — postponing easy gratification. Even boredom can be a permissible means of such discipline.” There’s no denying that, as reflective and contemplative as Bresson’s films are — a scant 13 in a career spanning over 40 years — they can be somewhat difficult to engage with. They’re slow to act on the mind the way medicine is slow to act on the body.
This difficulty of engagement is perplexing considering the simplicity of the films’ stories: a man plots to escape from prison; a donkey is passed from one owner to another; a religious warrior is tried and executed. The difficulty in watching and processing a Bresson film isn’t about the story being told. It’s about the philosophy behind the filmmaking. For the longest time, essays like Sontag’s have given critics and viewers the philosophical avenues (and confidence) to better understand Bresson’s films. Now, New York Review Books has provided Bresson with ample opportunity to speak for himself with the reissue of his curious Notes on the Cinematograph and a chronological collection of interviews, Bresson on Bresson: Interviews, 1943–1983.
First published in 1975, Notes on the Cinematograph is less a coherent treatise and more a haphazard collection of Zen-like koans on the art of filmmaking (a work J. M. G. Le Clézio, in his introduction, calls a “log-book”). To flip through its pages is to be rewarded and befuddled by short lines and reflections like:
When you do not know what you are doing and what you are doing is the best — that is inspiration.
Retouch some real with some real.
Let nothing be changed and all be different.
Laugh at a bad reputation. Fear one that you could not sustain.
Amid this fortune-cookie babble, of little use to anyone other than the filmmaker himself, are some true kernels of insight into Bresson’s views on filmmaking as the forge where a new language, built exclusively on image and sound, is heated and hammered into existence.
Central to his philosophy is what Bresson terms “cinematography,” a higher art form than mere “cinema” (and not to be confused with the work of camera operators). For Bresson, “cinema” was filmed theater, a mere reflection of the stage and its actors. It offered nothing original to the world:
CINEMA seeks immediate and definitive expression through mimicry, gestures, intonations of voice. This system inevitably excludes expression through contacts and exchanges of images and of sounds and the transformations that result from them.
Cinematography, however, which Bresson emphatically proclaims as “WRITING WITH IMAGES IN MOVEMENT AND WITH SOUNDS,” is the only way these transformations can be actualized. It’s a precise, militant art form that exploits the nature of film. If theater, to Bresson, was seeming, then cinematography was being. As Bresson later commands (in words his admirer, Sontag, would no doubt appreciate):
Your film will have the beauty, or the sadness, or what have you, that one finds in a town, in a countryside, in a house, and not the beauty, sadness, etc. that one finds in the photograph of a town, a countryside, or a house.
As one would expect, Bresson is vague about the relation of these ideas to his own films — or to the films of others. In fact, other filmmakers are rarely mentioned in Notes on the Cinematograph and, if they are, they remain anonymous (e.g., “In X’s eyes the cinema is a special industry; in Y’s an enlarged theater. Z sees the box office figures.”). For Bresson’s views on his own oeuvre, one has to rely on his widow, Mylène Bresson, and her comprehensive gathering of interviews that her late husband gave to predominantly French publications (L’Express, Cahiers du cinéma) and critics (Jean-Luc Godard, André Bazin).
Organized chronologically, Bresson on Bresson groups these interviews by film, starting with the director’s first (1934’s short film, Public Affairs) and culminating with his last (1983’s L’Argent). There are short sections along the way in which Bresson shares his ideas on literary adaptation, non-diegetic sound, and even the original publication of Notes on the Cinematograph. But the main reward for readers are the interviews about the films themselves, especially those from 1950–1970, the period in which Bresson was making his best films: Diary of a Country Priest (1951), A Man Escaped (1956), Pickpocket (1959), The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962), Au hasard Balthazar (1966), and Mouchette (1970). In these films, as he explains them, we see the two pillars on which Bressonian filmmaking rests: sounds and models.
Because true cinematography is about the relationship between images and sounds, the soundtrack to Bresson’s films is one of their most important characteristics. “The noises,” he writes in Notes on the Cinematograph, “must become music.” In some ways, Bresson felt that sound was more important than image. In a 1966 interview with Cahiers du cinéma, Bresson praised the ear for its inventive receptiveness (as opposed to the eye, which only receives information):
The ear is, in some sense, far more evocative and profound. The whistle of a train, for example, can call to mind the image of an entire station: sometimes of a precise station you know, sometimes of the atmosphere of a station or of tracks with a stopped train — the possible evocations are innumerable.
The result: A freedom of interpretation for the viewer. Sounds transform us into active viewers instead of passive observers. But for Bresson, this idea goes beyond the mere diegetic, representative nature of sounds as we’re used to hearing them in films (car horns in traffic, overlapping voices in a crowded bar). In a Bresson film, sounds don’t just add layers of reality — they invite viewers to invent their own reality.
This inventive potential is integral to the drama of A Man Escaped. Thanks to the film’s title, we know the ending of the movie from the start. Fontaine, a French rebel charged with espionage and sent to a German prison in Lyon, spends the running time of the film calculating and executing his escape. We know he’ll succeed. And yet Bresson employs sound as a means of amending visuals — of creating images in our mind, as opposed to merely displaying them on screen. The executions of political prisoners are marked by staccato gunfire; conversations with a prisoner in an adjoining cell are reduced to taps on a wall; approaching guards are announced by the clacking of their keys on stair railings. “There’s no apparent drama in a prison,” Bresson told Cahiers du cinéma in 1957. “You hear people being shot, but you don’t react visibly to it. All the drama is interior.”
One thinks of other sounds in Bresson films charged with the potential to create images in the mind. In The Trial of Joan of Arc, it’s the off-screen crackle and roar of the heroine’s funeral pyre or the cries (in English) of “Death to the witch!” that force us to invent the visual horror of burning alive, the rage of bloodthirsty spectators. In Au hasard Balthazar, all it takes is the crack of a bullwhip or sexually suggestive music from the young Gérard’s transistor radio to spark images of Balthazar’s bleeding hide, of Marie’s rape. And here’s a truly horrible thought: because sounds (and the imagination they fuel) create a unique mental picture of what happens off-screen, Balthazar is beaten, and Marie is raped, in a different way with each viewing.
Au hasard Balthazar is rightly considered Bresson’s masterpiece, which explains why it occupies the most pages in Bresson on Bresson. You can hear in the interviewers’ questions and in their introductions just how seismic this film was when it first appeared (Jean-Luc Godard called it “the most complete of [Bresson’s] films”). The film’s intertwined tale of a farm girl and a donkey, each of whom falls into despair in their own species-unique way, is not uplifting in the least — but it’s transcendental in the way that the succeeding film, Mouchette, strangely isn’t. Mouchette’s suicide after enduring so much misery is heart-breaking, but it’s less emotionally satisfying, perhaps even less spiritual, than the death that comes to Balthazar after enduring similar misery.
Given Bresson’s ideas on the role of acting in film, it’s no surprise the most affective performance in his entire body of work belongs to a donkey. To Bresson, acting belonged in the theater; its presence in film was the quickest way to destroy any sense of original creation. As he writes in Notes on the Cinematograph, “In film, acting does away with even the semblance of real presence, kills the illusion created by the photography.”
Instead of actors, Bresson employed “models”: people who wouldn’t succumb to a self-awareness of how they behaved and moved; people who didn’t bring with them, like so much baggage, earlier roles; people who were willing to repeat lines and gestures on end until a kind of automation was reached. This automation, to Bresson, was an important part of the real way we communicate.
Speaking on Radio-television française, Bresson said:
I ask [my models] to learn their lines not as a text that has meaning but like something that makes no sense at all, like a sequence of syllables, like sentences that are made not of words but of syllables. I ask that the meaning come from them, from their own impulse, in the moment when […] I let them loose in the world of the film.
The near-comatose performances of Martin LaSalle as the penitent title criminal in Pickpocket, Nadine Nortier as the troubled young girl in Mouchette, Christian Patey as the murderer in L’Argent, paradoxically add more life to seemingly lifeless stories. They’re akin to models in sculpture and painting; their role is to be bent to the artist’s overarching vision. And Bresson was serious about this, to the point where he didn’t even cast a trained donkey in Au hasard Balthazar — a feat that adds to the film’s authenticity but certainly, as Bresson tells it, made filmmaking more difficult.
Cinematic stylists abound. Cinematic philosophers, on the other hand, are scarce in today’s world. One thinks of the Dogme 95 manifesto of Danish filmmakers Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, but one look at von Trier’s more recent films (including 2009’s Antichrist and 2011’s Melancholia) shows that even he couldn’t adhere to his philosophy of austere, unadorned filmmaking for long. And Bresson, who in Notes on the Cinematograph decries the use of color film, eventually caved and began making films in color, starting with Four Nights of a Dreamer (1971).
While Bresson on Bresson is, at heart, the kind of interview catalog that one could find anywhere, it’s Notes on the Cinematograph that feels like the rare beast: a manifesto of filmmaking one doesn’t see much of nowadays. In it, Bresson’s artistic philosophy is laid bare. And while there are certainly filmmakers today who have their own styles (Paul Thomas Anderson, Sofia Coppola, Steve McQueen, to name but a few), so infrequently are these styles laid down as physical texts.
Would more of these physical manifestos (not to be confused with DVD commentaries) help us make more sense of an auteur’s work? Telling the viewer how to read a film, in many ways, leeches the life from it. It takes us back to that realm of passivity Bresson abhorred. It absolves us of any responsibility to forge our own meaning.
The best philosophical texts on film should offer us perspectives, not meanings. They should be point-of-interest maps, not CliffsNotes. They should illustrate, as does Robert Bresson’s Notes on the Cinematograph, that film is in many ways more about thinking than seeing.