Robert Bresson is one of the most acclaimed filmmakers of all time.
His cinema is poetic, seeking the profound in the minimal, affecting with the unaffected. While his influence is undoubted, with Paul Schrader particularly keen to reference Bresson’s work (including and especially in Taxi Driver), Bresson remains idiosyncratic. His style is unique and inimitable, a singular voice in cinema. Despite this, his writings on the form offer great insights for filmmakers of any walk.
1. ‘The truth of cinematography cannot be the truth of theatre, not the truth of the novel, nor the truth of painting.’
Foremost in Bresson’s filmic philosophy was the idea of film’s distinction from the other artforms. The seventh art, as it is often known in France. He distinguished ‘cinematography’, which for him was film that took advantage of its form, and ‘cinema’, which did not. For Bresson, ‘cinema films are historical documents whose place is in the archives.’ His main gripe with ‘cinema’ (which most films would be defined as) is how it cribs the fundamentals of theatre.
In defining these terms, he wrote: ‘two types of film: those that employ the resources of theatre and use the camera in order to reproduce; [and] those that employ the resources of cinematography and use the camera to create.’ For Bresson, film had no place for precepts of the stage. Loud performances, imitative narratives, and melodramatic grandeur were artefacts from another form. They work in theatre due to ‘flesh-and-blood’ presence. Bresson believed that translating this to film was like photographing a painting: a realistic copy, but undeniably lesser.
‘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 was Bresson’s approach, the way in which he envisioned ‘cinematography’ as distinct from all other forms. And while many might point to the boisterous films of Mike Leigh as theatrical, or the lush compositions of Kubrick as painterly, or the wordy ruminations of Rohmer as literary, Bresson’s point is sound. That which film can do – and that which other mediums cannot do – is necessarily the core of the artform. Do not find yourself lost in a medium that does not best communicate what you want to express. And always use the unique tools of filmmaking to your advantage.
2. ‘Nine-tenths of our movements obey habit and automatism. It is anti-nature to subordinate them to will and thought.’
Along with Bresson’s radical opinions on filmic form, his position on acting is also controversial. He saw the performances in so many films as theatrical – and as such artificial and improper for film. Bresson’s response is strangely contrary. Instead of courting realism in his actors, he encouraged them to reduce any and all thought in their performance instead. Indeed, he did not find it appropriate to even call them actors. Rather models, whose very presence, moulded by the director, should convey the feeling of the film.
While Bresson’s approach is controversial, its basis is worth considering. Acting, especially the kind often awarded with Hollywood finery, seems to prioritise more over less. A great performance is considered one that it is imitative and engaging, not necessarily one that reflects any ‘truth’ of human life. In reducing a performance, or by making it something other than a performance, a subtlety of emotion can be achieved. The closeness of the camera reduces the need for loud theatrics. As Bresson awkwardly put it, think of the ‘ejaculatory force of the eye.’
3. ‘Film where expression is obtained by relations of images and sounds, and not by mimicry done with gestures and intonations of voice.’
Lastly comes the fundamental distinction between film and photography – editing. Bresson, a student of associative montage, saw meaning between the images rather than in them. ‘If an image, looked at by itself, expresses something sharply, if it involves an interpretation, it will not be transformed on contact with other images… it is definitive and unusable in the cinematographer’s system.’ By this he means that an image that has meaning in itself is uncinematic. The point of film, as he sees it, is for meaning to be suggested by association and by contradiction. The essence of editing is way in which images, who themselves have limited meaning, interact and create something new.
To use his words again: ‘an image must be transformed by contact with other images as is a colour by contact with other colours. A blue is not the same blue beside a green, a yellow, a red. No art without transformation.’ The severity of his position might seem overly extreme – Tarkovsky was, for example, never much a fan of rebuking the uncut image. But to consider editing in this way is useful. To edit something together is not to simply put things in the right order, nor just to get to the next meaningful shot. It is the direct interaction of the shots, and what that might convey.
You don’t have to agree with Bresson. It seems strange to end such a praiseworthy article on that note, but it is important to say so. His cinema is specifically his own. His techniques – even his vocabulary – are rarely seen elsewhere. Many great filmmakers have contradicted his rules, and his own films are far from universally loved.
But even if his approach is unbecoming to you, the way in which he considers film is essential. To not fall into the pit of conventionality, to consider the fundamentals of cinema as though new. These are the core lessons of Bresson. To give him the final word: ‘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 waters.’