By the late ’50s, when he was already widely considered one of France’s finest filmmakers, Robert Bresson would confess in interviews that he hardly ever went to the movies. There was something about how people behaved in front of the camera that repelled him and that he had lost the power to block out. “I don’t go anymore,” he said in a 1975 interview timed to coincide with the publication of Notes on the Cinematograph, the collection of sayings and aphorisms on filmmaking he’d been compiling for more than two decades, “because I can’t abide these actors, who—in close-ups that show every detail—are there only to provide mimicry and theatrical gestures. And this feeling has become even stronger … I can’t do it, I can’t bear to see or hear it.”
The cinematic style Bresson developed, and the language he used to describe it, emerged from a peculiar set of sensitivities and distastes. He found himself in an industry that relied on rhythms of editing, applications of music, ways of setting up shots, and styles of acting he found insufferably primitive, lifeless, and impure. To watch the eleven features Bresson finished between 1951 and 1980—he made two somewhat more conventional features before 1950, as well as a little-seen comic short called Les affaires publiques (Public Affairs, 1934)—is to spend time in an environment from which naturalistic performances, soundtracks, and other devices found in most dramatic films have been renounced in favor of an alternate set of methods and rules.
He hardly avoided dramatic, even sensational subjects—the climax of his last film, L’Argent (Money, 1983), is a quadruple axe murder in a secluded country house—but he filmed them with a kind of radical discretion. In that murder scene, for instance, the camera dwells on the killer’s lower body and the lantern he holds as he moves through the house. We see the victims’ feet as they step into the hall. But the camera, rather than linger on the murders themselves, follows the family dog as it scurries through the house and comes across each body in turn. The last killing is a series of stuttering elisions: a woman’s startled face; a raised axe; a lamp overturned; a blood-spattered wall.
Bresson’s is a world in which crucial events go unseen and telling details are dwelt on intensely. Entire scenes are devoted to the movement of feet, the manipulation of objects by hands, or the looks exchanged by two sets of eyes. Actors speak as if talking to themselves and move as if in a trance. People’s facial features are scrutinized intensely for whatever emotions they might suggest or betray. Suicides are not shown but suggested by the sound of a body hitting water or the movement of a loose scarf in the wind.
When Bresson wrote and spoke about these movies, he used one of the most idiosyncratic styles ever developed by a filmmaker to describe his or her own work. The publication, in a new translation by Anna Moschovakis, of the career-spanning interview anthology Bresson on Bresson, together with a reissue of Jonathan Griffin’s 1977 translation of Notes on the Cinematograph, gives English readers a new chance to study Bresson’s writings on film.1 (In New York, it’s also the occasion for a six-film Bresson program at Metrograph, a weeklong run of L’Argent in a new restoration at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, and a series at BAM that pairs four Bresson movies with a selection of his own favorite films.) Together, these two books make one realize just how strange and original a vision Bresson nurtured of what movies could do. But they also call attention to a side of Bresson that seems almost pathological. He had an impulse to look at people so intensely, with such directness and such skill at dismantling whatever acts they put on, that the resulting images—for all the care he invested in them—could seem pitiless and cruel.
Bresson was born in 1901 in a tiny village in central France. Little is known about his upbringing and young adulthood. Later in life, he would sometimes refer to his early aspirations as a painter, as well as to the year and a half he endured in the early ’40s as a German prisoner of war. After his first two features—Les Anges du péché (Angels of Sin, 1943) and Les dames du Bois de Boulogne (The Ladies of the Bois de Boulogne, 1945), both made under the Occupation—Bresson stopped using professional actors. From then on, he relied only on people he called “models”: nonprofessionals he chose for their presence and physical grace and whom he instructed not to emote for the camera.
One can’t help being stirred and transfixed by the portraits Bresson made of people intensely immersed in their own thoughts or troubles.
With these models, he made six black-and-white films of intense beauty and often equally intense violence. Many took place in prison or prison-like settings: the Paris jail that houses the Resistance fighter at the center of Un condamné à mort s’est échappé (A Man Escaped, 1956); the courtroom that becomes a site for the Procès de Jeanne d’Arc (The Trial of Joan of Arc, 1962); the cell in which we find the thief protagonist of Pickpocket (1959) at the end of that movie; and the chamber where the curate in Journal d’un curé de campagne (Diary of a Country Priest, 1951) pursues a sickly, ascetic life. Half of them center on vulnerable or abused women. In addition to Joan of Arc, there is the impoverished, provincial 14-year-old girl who gives Mouchette (1967) its name; as well as Marie (Anne Wiazemsky) in Au hasard Balthazar (Balthazar, 1966), the young woman whose exploitation by a series of men runs parallel to the injustices suffered by the donkey of the film’s title.
There followed five films in color, which seemed to push Bresson into harsher, flatter, and more intensely focused visual arrangements. With the exception of Lancelot du Lac (Lancelot of the Lake, 1974)—a re-telling of the Arthurian legend in which the knights all move clumsily and clankingly inside incommodious armor—all these films took place in contemporary Paris. The people who pass through them are young, strikingly beautiful, and afflicted with various kinds of unhappiness or despair. The sullen aesthete who self-destructs in Le diable probablement (The Devil, Probably, 1977), the trapped young wife in Une Femme Douce (A Gentle Woman, 1969), and the doomed protagonist of L’Argent, whose life unravels after he unwittingly uses a forged banknote, all end up driven to murder or suicide. A happier fate comes to the indolent painter at the center of Quatre nuits d’un rêveur (Four Nights of a Dreamer, 1972), a bohemian romance set on the banks of the Seine. But for Bresson, that film’s ending—a vision of a young artist undertaking work “propelled by illusions”—had its own kind of pessimism. Bresson was 82 when L’Argent premiered; he lived another 16 years without making another movie.
Critics have puzzled over these inscrutable films: filled with visions of sin, punishment, and unalloyed suffering, yet marked by an obsession with gorgeous faces and bodies; brisk in their rhythms and thrifty in what they show, yet strangely lush in their visual textures. In his writings and his interviews, Bresson tended to sidestep questions about the school or worldview into which he fit. Instead, he dwelt on technical matters of editing, performance, and sound. Well-dressed, handsome, and rather formal, he appeared in public as a figure of total conviction. His replies to interview questions often had an austere chilliness:
Interviewer: What do you expect the audience to bring to your film?
Bresson: Not their brains, but their capacity to feel.
Interviewer: Do you expect them to know the facts of the trial [of Joan of Arc]? Is that why you don’t include an introduction to the participants?
Bresson: I don’t explain the way theater explains.
The account Bresson gives of his work in the writings collected in these two volumes begins with what he considered the nature of the film camera itself. “I would like to be able to explain,” he told an interviewer in 1951, “how this extraordinary camera, which is our primary instrument … is at the same time our most powerful enemy, in the sense that the camera records everything, with the indifference and stupidity of the mechanical, of the machine.” It was for this reason that he found film badly suited to the “mimicry and theatrical gestures” actors used onstage. Probably no phrase occurs more often in Bresson’s interviews than “filmed theater,” which he used as a kind of blanket term for the kind of filmmaking he wanted to avoid.
Bresson often insisted that he didn’t resent the theater itself. But a theatergoer, he suggested, sees an actor both from a physical distance and through the mental scrim of his or her intellectual and emotional response to what the actor does. A talented actor depends on this distance to soften her performance, to make her gestures seem lifelike rather than broad or overwrought. In contrast, Bresson believed that the camera doesn’t soften or interpret the performances it records. It captures with “scrupulous indifference,” he wrote in the Notes, “what no human eye can catch.” In front of its blunt and unforgiving gaze, any mimicry of emotion or striving for effect would tear the fabric of the film. “The camera … captures everything,” Bresson told Cahiers du Cinema in 1957. “That is, it captures the actor who is both himself and someone else at the same time. If we look very closely, we can see that there is something false; the result isn’t true.”
Many of Bresson’s methods can be seen as attempts to overcome what he considered the camera’s “stupidity.” His goal, as he suggests throughout his interviews, was to film his subjects with an eye for “what’s happening inside them”—for “the way in which concrete things … make their way into the life of a soul.” Much had to be done to counterbalance what Bresson once called the camera’s power to “crush.” Not only did “acting” have to be forbidden; the resulting images had to be carefully ordered and arranged. The camera’s human subjects had to be linked in a well-established web of relations to one another, as well as to the spaces they take up and the objects they handle. One thinks, for example, of the wallets, watches, and newspapers Michel and his fellow thieves lift in Pickpocket, the forged banknote that trades hands in L’Argent, or the trinkets that pass through the pawnshop managed by the imperious husband in Une femme douce.
Giving a film the proper order, for Bresson, meant associating his models “by the act of looking.” The gazes they exchanged, in his view, were like vivifying agents that put life back into what the camera had put to death. A crucial scene in Mouchette takes place between that film’s young heroine and a shop owner who notices an incriminating scratch on her collarbone. Unjustly, the older woman assumes that the girl—who has just been raped by the poacher who sheltered her during a storm—took a lover the previous night. The scene is a complex interplay of glances and charged looks, one for each shot, that accumulate at a rapid clip. By the end of the exchange, the girl has been conquered by the woman’s power to look at her more closely and less sparingly than she can look back.
What kind of “life” did Bresson want to capture in his characters? In a long interview with Jean-Luc Godard and Michel Delahaye, he suggested that he was interested in “penetrating into the unknown essence of ourselves,” and that “the great difficulty” in doing so was “to remain in the interior” even when “my means are exterior means and thus function in relation to appearances.” He wanted his models to speak, he would say, as if they were talking to themselves; when he filmed them, he wanted to show them at the deepest stage of self-communion he could convince them to undergo. Actors, he thought, were always “projecting” their emotions for public display. In contrast, “the thing that matters [about models],” he wrote in the Notes, “is not what they show me but what they hide from me, and, above all what they do not suspect is in them.” He often said, particularly once he turned to color, that during a shoot he looked for whatever was unexpected and spontaneous. He scrutinized his models’ faces and bodies for ripples of thought, and when his camera mechanically picked up those signs, it could be as if he were stealing precisely what his models wanted to keep private.
Bresson devotes entire scenes to the movement of feet, the manipulation of objects by hands, or the looks exchanged by two sets of eyes.
Bresson’s preference for intuitive gestures over “mimicry”—for the untrained over the studied—limited the resources on which he could draw to create drama. His characters don’t rationalize their own behavior; they don’t tend to show much cleverness or wit; they don’t talk themselves into risky decisions or make intellectual breakthroughs. When they fall in love—as Michel and Jeanne do at the end of Pickpocket or as Jacques and Marthe, the central couple in Quatre nuits d’un rêveur, do in that film—it can only occur suddenly and prompted by a disaster: an imprisonment, an interrupted suicide. More often, they don’t rise to the shallower waters in which social life is lived. Instead, they stay submerged deeper within themselves, nursing more primal kinds of fear and sadness and self-protection.
Bresson’s models were always striking physical specimens. The men he chose were slender, with soft, expressive eyes, and often a kind of frailty that made them look like plants oversensitive to light. The women he cast were fuller featured, improbable exemplars of beauty and health. One can’t help being stirred and transfixed by the portraits he made of these people intensely immersed in their own thoughts or troubles.
But there could also be something bullying about these images. Bresson was a famously demanding director on set, putting his models through grueling repetitions and in some cases pushing them to the brink of exhaustion. The resulting shots often ask us to look at people’s faces and bodies more intently than good taste and modesty usually permit, to inherit the camera’s “scrupulous indifference.” We watch Mouchette harden herself against the moralistic townspeople she encounters in that film’s last third, tightening her features and gathering determination for the suicide with which the movie ends. We’re invited to marvel at Joan’s calm self-possession—in contrast to the theatrical agony Bresson disliked in Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc—and to watch for the moments when it weakens or cracks. We look unstintingly at Claude Landau’s country priest as his loneliness escalates and his chronic physical pain intensifies. We scrutinize Dominique Sanda’s “gentle woman” as she steels herself against her husband’s efforts to shape and confine her.
The most interesting conflict in Bresson’s movies is the one between the models and the camera. Often, that conflict—the model’s struggle to hide from the camera’s mechanical stare—was reproduced in the dramatic action of the films themselves. Some of the most memorable and grueling scenes in Bresson are images of shame and humiliation, of people left open to unwanted attention. Mouchette’s encounter with the storeowner, which plays out entirely in glances and looks, is an awful encroachment on a young woman at her most vulnerable. So is the image, near the end of Au hasard Balthazar, of Marie’s father finding her huddled naked in the corner of the empty room where she’s been stripped, beaten, and abandoned by a local thug and his gang. Joan of Arc, in Bresson’s telling of her trial and execution, gets ferried back and forth between the courtroom where she’s questioned and the cell where she alternately weeps, prays, and sits with a kind of taut, superhuman composure. We periodically see her through the hole in the wall her captors use to monitor how she’s bearing up under their pressure.
Bresson’s protagonists often have an inner sanctum—physical or mental—that they desperately protect, like the bedroom where Marthe studies her reflected body in Quatre nuits d’un rêveur or the chamber where Guinevere bathes in Lancelot du Lac. In other cases, such as that of the female ex-convict who joins a convent after shooting a man in Les Anges du péché, Bresson’s protagonists are literally on the run, driven into a kind of animal wariness by hostile forces that want to lock them up. Like Joan’s cell, those hiding places tend to be insecure or open to intrusion. Pickpocket ends with Michel and Jeanne separated by the mesh of a prison visiting screen; Les Anges du péché, with a close-up of the woman’s hands being cuffed. (A similar image, of Joan’s bound wrists, comes at the start of Procès de Jeanne d’Arc.) It were as if Bresson was staging the kinds of intrusions and exposures he risked committing himself. “What I ask of my interpreters,” he told an interviewer in 1966, “is that they stay inside themselves, that they lock themselves in and give nothing away. But then I come along to take from them whatever they’re hiding. That’s what interests me.”
Bresson’s gamble was to turn these acts of theft and violation into a way of conferring power on the models themselves. In contrast to the looks of the shopkeeper or Marie’s family, his gazes were meant to dignify his subjects rather than shame or disgrace them. It’s partly for this reason, one suspects, that Bresson considered it so important to fit his models into a larger network of objects and rooms: it was crucial not to isolate their bodies in otherwise bare spaces. Behind Bresson’s concern to “put everything in order”—to find the “intersection of relations” best suited to a given moment—you can sense his knowledge that he was embarking on something delicate and dangerous. His interest in finding what his models were hiding had led him, he knew, to look at them so intently that it would be a sin not to install them in a detailed, vibrant setting at the same time.
“When I was young,” Bresson said in a 1960 radio broadcast, “I was taught only one thing. I was told ‘pay attention.’ And now, it seems as if the whole world is being told not to pay attention. It’s very serious.” Perhaps lost in translation is that Bresson was punning on a familiar French warning to rowdy children (fais attention often means something like “behave yourself”), which gives this passage a suggestion of ethical obligation and guilt. He seemed to know that the risks of paying a great deal of attention to people—their bodies, their faces, and especially their eyes—were as serious as those of paying little or none, and he sensed that the camera paid more attention to his models than they might have hoped or bargained to receive. The style he invented was meant to mitigate the effects of the power that meting out such attention gave him. If his films are still enigmas, it is partly because they never let on how much he let his models hide.
- Full disclosure: my employer, the New York Review of Books, published these editions. I had no involvement in their editing or preparation. ↩