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Sunday, 22 August 2010

Robert Bresson: Cinema


File:EscapedMan ScreenShot.png

A Man Escaped: Robert Bresson, 1956
from a French television interview with Robert Bresson by Roger Stephane, 1966

... The scene was on paper. But there's a world of difference between writing it and filming it. To me, the most important part of a film is its rhythm. Everything is expressed by the rhythm. Without rhythm, there's nothing... everything you say happens, didn't happen during filming, but during editing. It's the editing that creates these things, that brings them forth. The camera simply records. It's precise, and fortunately, unbiased. The camera is extremely precise. The drama is created in the cutting room, when images are juxtaposed and sound is added, that's when "love blossoms".


The difficulty is that all art is both abstract and suggestive at the same time. Art lies in suggestion. The great difficulty for filmmakers is precisely not to show things. Ideally, nothing should be shown, but that's impossible. So things must be shown from one sole angle that evokes all other angles without showing them. We must let the viewer gradually imagine, hope to imagine, and keep them in a state of anticipation. This goes back to what I said earlier about showing the cause after the effect. We must let the mystery remain. Life is mysterious, and we must see that on screen. The effects of things must always be shown before their causes, like in real life. We're unaware of the causes of most of the things that we witness. We see the effects and only later discover the cause.


Mouchette: Robert Bresson, 1966

Words should say everything an image can't. Before having characters speak, we should examine everything they could express, with their eyes, above all with body language, certain kinds of interaction, certain ways of behaving. Words should only be used when we need to delve deeper into the heart of things. In short, ideas must be expressed on film using appropriate images and sounds, and dialogue should only be used as a last resort. I don't like talking about technique. I don't feel that I have one. It's more an obsession I have with flattening out images. I have good reason to. I believe -- or rather, I'm certain -- that without transformation there is no art, and without transforming the image, there is no cinema. If the image remains isolated on screen, just as it was filmed, if it doesn't change when juxtaposed with other images, there is no transformation, and it isn't cinema. To achieve that -- images bearing the mark of the dramatic arts can't be transformed, because they're marked by that seal; like a table made of wood that's already been carved once, the table will be shaped by these carvings. You must use images free from all art, especially the dramatic arts, so they can be transformed through contact with other images and sound. The great difficulty in cinema -- I say "cinema" to distinguish it from "movies" -- by "movies" I mean conventional ones, which to me are just filmed plays; the director has the actors perform a play, and he films it -- to me, cinema is entirely different. It's an independent art, born of the juxtaposition of images with sound -- image with sound, and sound with sound. When you film actors performing a play, the camera reproduces the scene, it doesn't create it. In the theatre, we ask actors to perform a piece, actors from stage or film or both. We photograph them acting out this story. To me, it's not the same thing. Cinema is about images and sound; images that are transformed when juxtaposed with others. But the images must have a certain quality that might be called neutrality. They must have -- and it's difficult to avoid too much dramatic meaning -- their dramatic meaning should only come from the juxtaposition with other images. That's what's extremely difficult, to know how this image should be shot, and from what angle, to allow it to interact with other images.

To the degree that theatre is an external and decorative art -- which is not at all an insult, in my mind -- to that same degree, the aim, the goal of cinema (I specifically say "cinema" and not "movies", referring to the art of the cinema, if it exists) is about interiorization, intimacy, isolation; in other words, the innermost depths.

To me, cinema is the art of having each thing in its place. In this it resembles all the other arts. Like the anecdote of Johann Sebastian Bach playing for a student. The student gushes with admiration, but Bach says, "There's nothing to admire. You just have to hit the note at the right time, and the organ does the rest".


...talking about technique again, or rather my obsession with mechanical behavior. I think most of our gestures, and even our words, are automatic. If your hand is on your knee, you didn't put it there. Montaigne has a wonderful chapter about this, about our hands that go where we don't tell them to go. Our hands are autonomous; they are not under our command. Our gestures, our limbs, are practically autonomous. That's cinema. What cinema is not is thinking out a gesture, thinking out words. We don't think of what we're going to say. the words come even as we think, and perhaps make us think. In this regard, theatre is unrealistic and unnatural. What I attempt with my films is to touch what's real. Perhaps I'm obsessed with reality.


[The "models":]... they improvise, but not in the way you think. By that I mean, I like the mind to be completely uninvolved in what's happening. We keep repeating lines, fifty times if necessary, until the mind no longer intervenes in the dialogue or gestures. Once things become automatic, the actor is thrown into the action of the film, and completely unexpected things happen that are a hundred times more real than theatrical acting, where the actor has memorized his lines, thinking out his every word and gesture. There's no way it will seem real.


What interests me is not what they show but what they conceal... [which can be shown] thanks to that miraculous machine called a camera. As matter of fact, what surprises me [about conventional "movies'] is that such an incredible device, capable of recording what our eyes can not, or more precisely what our mind does not, is only used to show tricks and falsehood. That's what surprises me.

I ask [the performers] to learn their lines while ignoring their meaning, as if they didn't have a meaning, as if they were just syllables. The meaning comes upon them unaware.


I always try categorically to eliminate what's not essential. I absolutely believe in cinema as serious art. Not as entertainment, but on the contrary as a kind of aid to mankind in delving deeper, and discovering ourselves.

File:Priest of Ambricourt and the Countess.png

A Man Escaped: Robert Bresson, 1956


Ed Baker said...

"Words should only be used when we need to delve deeper into the heart of things. In short, ideas must be expressed on [...]."

I am going to spend next week tracking down this guys films... thanks, I NEEDED that (your essay).



TC said...


Bresson was the most ascetic of film makers. He once pointed out that in Greek ascetic means someone who exercises a practice. "I like exercise," he said. After his first few films he worked only with nonactors. Most of them never acted again. There's a wonderful short film about Martin Lassalle, the lead in Pickpocket, who had never been in a film before then and was never in another film after. Many years later a woman tracked him down in a back street in Mexico City, where he was an old man living quietly alone. Before her camera he rummages around and brings out a scrapbook of clippings from his one movie experience, with Bresson.

In an interview done four years after the one in this post, the following exchange occurs:

Interviewer: Why do so many of your actors walk about with their eyes cast downward?

Bresson: They are looking at the chalk marks.



Yes, "scene was on the paper . . . everything you say happens . . . camera simply records . . . drama is created in the cutting room . . ." ---


grey whiteness of fog against invisible
ridge, motion of green leaves on branch
in foreground, wave sounding in channel

“presence” where in thinking,
position of thing as is

in some way, that would look,
an idea of meaning real

grey-white of fog against top of ridge,
cormorant flapping across toward point

Ed Baker said...

I could add
something more here
I have to pee

and check my emails...
all two of them!

ACravan said...

I love all of this. Bresson's remarks, in their lucidity, precision, unpretentiousness and underlying sense of moral purpose, remind me a lot of Dorthea Lange's words included in “We’ve Been Blown Out”.

His comment:

"I ask [the performers] to learn their lines while ignoring their meaning, as if they didn't have a meaning, as if they were just syllables. The meaning comes upon them unaware.",

and the things he says about rhythm remind me of something similar I read in Matthew Modine's book about working with Stanley Kubrick on Full Metal Jacket regarding Kubrick’s absolute focus on presenting an intended cadence that married with the meaning of the words being spoken.

The exchange with the interviewer ending with:

"They are looking at the chalk marks.",

is really true and fine.

Speaking as a terrible actor, someone who can’t actually move and speak lines in any sort of coordination at the same time, but who, like most people I think, loves movies deeply, this is really inspiring. It worries me a bit that the uppermost image from A Man Escaped reminds me of me.


TC said...


I had hoped this piece -- which by the way hasn't to my knowledge appeared in print before, at least in English -- might have resonance for you.

Since seeing Au hasard, balthazar in a little arts cinema in Cambridge when it first came out, I've held Bresson in mind as a kind of gold standard in the art.

Cinematography, as he calls it.

On the subject of rhythm, which you pick up on, there's this bit from an interview with Charles Thomas Samuel (1970):

Bresson: My style is natural to me. You see, I want to make things so concentrated and so unified that the spectator feels as if he has seen one single moment. I control all speech and gesture so as to produce an object that is indivisible. Because I believe that one moves an audience only through rhythm, concentration, and unity.

And on the issue of moral purpose, which you also mention, certainly his work always did seem to stand out from its time, representing something of a solitary voice.

Bresson related metaphysical and theological mystery with aesthetic mystery in a common embrace of faith:

S: You have often expressed contempt for psychology. Yet you keep talking about the mystery of personality in ways that sound psychological. What's the difference between what you want to understand and what the psychologist wants to understand?

B: The psychologist discovers only what he can explain. I explain nothing.

S: You are a person with no preconceptions.

B: None at all.

S: Whereas psychology is a closed system, whose premises dictate its method. Therefore, it discovers evidence in support of a preexisting theory of human behavior.

B: If I succeed at all, I suppose some of what I show on the screen will be psychologically valid, even though I am not quite aware of it. But of course, I don't always succeed. In any case, I never want to explain anything. The trouble with most films is that they explain everything.

S: That's why one can go back to your films.

B: If there is something good in a film, one must see it at least twice. A film doesn't give its best the first time.

S: I think that many of your ideas are a consequence of your Christianity. Am I right in saying that you pursue mystery without worrying that the audience will be baffled because you believe that we all partake of one essential soul?

B: Of course. Of course.

S: So that every viewer is fundamentally the same viewer.

B: Of course. What I am very pretentiously trying to capture is this essential soul, as you call it.

S: Do you believe that there is anybody that does not partake in this essential soul, for example, is an atheist outside your audience?

B: No, he is not. Besides, there are no real atheists.

Ed Baker said...

copies of this book are yet "out there":

Notes On the Cinematographer

first thought that comes and goes through my mind:

words and images only nearly

"only nearly" What?

only nearly approximate

TC said...


That's a very great book indeed. In fact I think it could usefully replace all the existing libraries of academic film theory.

The translation I prefer is Jonathan Griffin's, commonly available from Urizen Books.

The entire book, in the Griffin translation, is readily accessible as a PDF here.

Ed Baker said...


you know
those 24 + years when I dropped out


now that I have 'dropped back in' I am reading, writing, drawing/painting, sculpting

as fast as I can

and, these days

all that I ask of myself is

that I don't fart in public!

TC said...

(The Green Integer edition reprints the Griffin translation from the Urizen edition.)

Ed Baker said...


I ordered a NEW copy via amazon for $8.75...Imagine that.

what I shall do with my next Social Security check is go directly to Green Integer and buy some "stuff" from them... AT FULL PRICE.


I saw the book as you link to it..

I jus' Kant read books "virtually" on this tv screen!

gotta be able to hold in my hands like my Muses

run my finger through and through...
their pages and




(or some such crap!)



Great to see more from Bresson: "I explain nothing." "In any case, I never want to explain anything." " I want to make things so concentrated and so unified that the spectator feels as if he has seen one single moment." Sounds as if Notes on the Cinematographer is something we all should read. . . .


And this one, noted by Curtis: "I ask [the performers] to learn their lines while ignoring their meaning, as if they didn't have a meaning, as if they were just syllables. The meaning comes upon them unaware." And also that comment on the actors "looking at the chalk marks."

Sandra.if said...

this is so interesting...I would like to make a link and also translate in my blog

TC said...

That would be alright with me, Sandra.

Sandra.if said...

thanks Tom...!

TC said...

And while we're here, a few loose bits of Bressoniana: two further remarks from the director himself:

1) My movie is born first in my head, dies on paper; is resuscitated by the living persons and real objects I use, which are killed on film but, placed in a certain order and projected on to a screen, come to life again like flowers in water.


2) The most ordinary word, when put into place, suddenly acquires brilliance. That is the brilliance with which your images must shine.


And this comment from Jean-Luc Godard:

Robert Bresson is French cinema, as Dostoevsky is the Russian novel and Mozart is German music.

. said...

Tom, this is great. Bresson should be required reading (and viewing) at all art schools. His ideas are important across the board. Thanks for this.

Anonymous said...

On my way out of the house, I caught the last two additions here. I'm grateful for the new Bressonia (including the Godard quote) and agree with Leigh, but wonder whether something like this can ever be "taught"?

. said...

Curtis, I agree, the idea of this being taught is questionable. I think more accurately I should have said 'made aware of'.

TC said...

I think Bresson's techniques and effects could be and indeed have been exhaustively taught. But Bresson himself considered techniques and effects to be trivial. The drive in the films and in the philosophical approach that lies behind them has to do with spiritual motives as well as aesthetic motives; or rather, for Bresson, it is all one unified motive. In this he is singular, and stands alone, and his genius is thus particular and probably could not be taught. After departing from conventional cinema following his disastrous experience with the grand actress Maria Casares in Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne, he made a cinema that is to all intents and purposes self-created.

Ed Baker said...

well enough comments..
and speaking to "dieing on paper"
and teaching ...anything:

"The Tao that can be told/taught is not the eternal Tao"

and this "little" poem that Cid (Corman) wrote and was published in New Directions 34 in 1977

As though mountains existed
for valleys to persist in-
as through the silence lifted

underneath a music of
articulate soundings. We
may reach summits and plant flags-

but come back down to live where
word of it matters. We have
to die in order to live.

(something about "Ed Baker" over on today's Geof Huth blog...
gotta run.

Sandra.if said...

now I am thinking about the the words film-movie-cinema..we only have película

Monty said...

Is the original interview available anywhere do you know?

TC said...


Pelicula and film are really the same word -- a skin, a membrane, originally from a Greek word for skin or animal hide.

This seems fair enough:

Una película es una obra de arte cinematográfica que emite una historia de manera audiovisual, por medio de una secuencia de imágenes y sonidos...

"Movie" is perhaps a bit confusing, since the images and sounds sometimes (especially in Bresson, who purposefully isolates them) literally "stand still...", if only for moments... but of course those moments can seem almost eternal.


Sorry, I'm afraid I can't help. The piece as I present it is edited from a hand transcription I made some years back from a borrowed videotape of that interview; it may have been transcribed elsewhere, and perhaps even published, but if so, I'm not aware of it.

(By the by, in the past week I've actually seen some of Bresson's comments from this post quoted elsewhere on the internet, and attributed to, of all people, Salvador Dali. Mutatis mutandi...)

stevef said...

Ought to be required reading for all directors. Some would disagree with specifics (for instance, regarding how actors should understand--or not understand, assign no meaning to--their lines...I had heard this before in some review of Au Hasard Balthazar), but even a well-understood disagreement would, as usual, bring clarity.

TC said...


Were anything like a Bressonian attention to formality, restraint, and, above all, the mysterious dignity and strange pathos of the human, to be brought to the making of movies today, it would indeed represent a miraculous transformation of the medium -- almost a Bressonian miracle one might say.