Notes on the Cinematograph and Bresson on Bresson —Tristan Burke

Robert Bresson, Notes on the Cinematograph, trans. Jonathan Griffin, introduction by J.M.G Le Clézio. New York Review of Books, 2016.

Robert Bresson, Bresson on Bresson: Interviews 1943-1983, ed. Mylène Bresson, trans. Anna Moschovakis, preface by Pascale Mérigeau. New York Review of Books, 2016.

Robert Bresson is both unknown and underappreciated. This may seem like a counterintuitive statement to make about one of the most important filmmakers of the twentieth-century, but his work is rarely seen, rarely cited by contemporary filmmakers as an influence and little discussed outside academic circles. Though he had a huge influence on the French nouvelle vague directors, he has never achieved the pop culture recognition of Godard or Truffaut. Where he is known, it is for three or four films of his mid-career, that deal, in more or less oblique ways, with the religious question of grace: Diary of a Country Priest (1951), Pickpocket (1959), Balthazar, At Random (1966), and Mouchette (1967). That these are his most accessible films, comparatively narrative and fostering a certain level of emotional empathy, does not detract from their brilliance. Nor does it disguise Bresson’s extreme unconventionality: Pickpocket gives us long, strange shots of disembodied hands entering jacket pockets and passing stolen goods from person to person down production lines of theft, for example, while Balthazar, At Random, wavers between a resolute refusal to anthropomorphise its titular donkey, as he is passed without logic from cruel owner to cruel owner, and the tantalising but never realised suggestion that his story is an allegory for Christ’s passion.

But these films are not the closest in Bresson’s oeuvre to his own stringent, ascetic dream of film, what Bresson calls cinematography, which he describes in block capitals as, ‘A WRITING WITH IMAGES IN MOVEMENT AND WITH SOUNDS’, in contrast to cinema, which is ‘the photographic reproduction of a stage show […] comparable to the photographic reproduction of a painting or sculpture’. Bresson sets out his theory in his aphoristic book Notes on the Cinematograph (1975), reissued under this more accurate title (it was previously known as Notes on Cinematography in English), by New York Review of Books, to accompany a newly collected and translated anthology of interviews, Bresson on Bresson: Interviews 1943-1983. These interviews themselves constitute another source of Bresson’s own theoretical writing; embodying the auteur theory that the Cahiers du cinema critics developed based on his work, Pascale Mérigeau informs us in his preface to the interviews that, ‘Editors recall having to drastically reduce their planned page count after Bresson reread an interview: Once he had pruned, corrected, redacted, and amended it, no more than four of the eight or ten envisioned pages would remain, five on a good day’. As such, Bresson’s interviews become another self-authored document that relentlessly expounds the same view of cinema articulated in his treatise on film. Indeed, in the interviews Bresson responds to the same questions again and again, ‘why don’t you use professional actors?’, ‘are there symbols in your work?’, ‘what is the work’s relationship to documentary?’, ‘are your films beautiful?’, the paradoxically consistent variations he offers on these themes developing a precise vision of what film art ought to be. Whether Bresson ever achieves this goal is another question; Jacques Rancière, for example, recently, convincingly argued in his Intervals of Cinema that Bresson never breaks away from the realist logic of the nineteenth-century novel. However, the late and less seen films, A Gentle Woman (1969), Four Nights of a Dreamer (1971), Lancelot du Lac (1974), The Devil Probably (1977), and Money (1983), take up remarkably varied subject matters presented with a stringency and asceticism different from anything else that was happening in film and which has happened since. As Rainer Werner Fassbinder wrote of The Devil Probably, ‘in the future – and this world will probably last for another few thousand years – this film will be more important than all the rubbish which is now considered important but which never really goes deep enough’.

In these films, there is a profound and radical engagement with the politics of capitalism, climate change, youth movements and aesthetics, expressed in the total banishment of emotional empathy, the privileging of editing over performance, editing being used to construct meaning through relations of subjects and objects rather than through intersubjective psychology, new experiments in the use of sound particularly in its relation to gaps in the visual track, and a complex depiction of political redemption in dialectical relation to despair.

Whether Bresson’s films actually fulfil the conditions of his dream of film is, in some respects, a moot point. What Bresson’s writings do is not explain the films – they tend to be too abstract even in the interviews where he discusses specific films, with statements such as ‘To show everything in a film is to fall into the habits of theatre – much like the way actors act’. Rather, they offer a persuasive framework to open up avenues of interpretation for his elusive, elliptical cinematography. But to discuss this, some explanation of his theories is necessary.

What differentiates Bresson’s conception of ‘cinematography’ from the vulgar ‘cinema’ that he criticises? Key to cinematography’s distinctiveness is its embrace of the specific formal possibilities of the film medium. Bresson begins Notes on the Cinematograph with the admonishment to ‘Rid myself of the accumulated errors and untruths. Get to know my resources, make sure of them’. This will lead to a type of film that rather than ‘employ[ing] the resources of theatre (actors, direction, etc.) and us[ing] the camera in order to reproduce’, will ‘employ the resources of cinematography and use the camera to create’. Bresson rejects the notion of film as a composite media, a little bit of the visual arts, a little bit of theatre, a little bit of literature, a little bit of music – and asserts the unity of cinema as a single art in its specificity.

What is different about cinema is that it arranges images and sounds which unfold across time and in space in relation to one another, and these relations themselves unfold across time, on the screen.

Finally, this image-sound duration has no physical presence. Film is markedly different from the theatre, which is most resembles, because its images are second-order. The specificity of this conception of film is stressed by Bresson’s interest in the apparatus. He sees cinema as machinic. His films are ‘exercises performed with this powerful machine’, and even in the earliest interviews he expresses an interest in the technical aspects of filmmaking: ‘In the studio the equipment, camera lenses, microphones – and in the cinema the projectors – are always in need of improvement. So we appeal to our engineers. They are constantly providing us with the gift of new tools, ready to respond to our endless demands’. Bresson’s acknowledgement of the machinic aspects of filmmaking raises an interesting challenge to auteur theory. Contra his critic-champions, Bresson sees himself less of the great auteur as a functioning part in a thrilling film-machine, a theme which obliquely re-emerges in his theories of machinic models and arrangements of images.

However, according to Bresson, most film is cinema rather than cinematography: ‘photographed theatre’ where ‘some actors perform a play’ and a director ‘photograph[s] these actors performing the play’ before ‘lin[ing] up the images’. Cinema is ‘bastard theatre lacking what makes theatre: material presence of living actors, direct action of the audience of the actors’. To a certain extent, Bresson’s project is to recapture the sense of excitement around the new medium that appears in silent film. He claims that ‘The TALKIE opens its doors to theatre which occupies the place and surrounds it with barbed wire’. Bresson, however, wishes to integrate sound into this project in a wholly new way too: punctuating the images in a way that does not simply reiterate what the image already signifies: ‘Music takes up all the room and gives no increased value to the image to which it is added’. Instead, ‘image and sound […] must work each in turn through a sort of relay’.

To bring Bresson’s theory of cinematography into focus then, I want to explicate three key aspects of it: the ontology of the photographic image (to borrow Bazin’s phrase), the role of the actor, and the role of editing.

Bresson sees cinema as markedly different from any other artform because of the ability of the camera to record the image in what might be described as a heightened ontological state. He attributes this idea to Chaplin:

Chaplin said that the camera captures everything, and he recounted this story: An excellent actress, a Garbo, was in the midst of performing a scene to perfection while the cameras rolled. It was hot and the studio was full of flies. And while performing this scene to perfection she suddenly thought, “What if a fly lands on my nose?” And the camera recorded that thought.

Rather quaintly, the interviewer then glosses this anecdote by explaining back to Bresson that he ‘believe[s] the camera records people’s thoughts’. A more accurate way of describing it would be that the photographic image has such fidelity to reality that it captures what cannot be seen with the naked eye. This is stressed by the importance for Bresson of location filming, of depictions of everyday life, the use of people who are not actors, and of the suppression of incident. Cinematography, aims at ‘representing nothing’, because all that it captures is what is. However, this ‘what is’, allows something else to emerge. One way of understanding Bresson’s rather oblique remarks here would be to turn to Walter Benjamin, who offers a strikingly similar theory of film in his ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’. According to Benjamin, when we watch reproduced reality in a state of relaxation and distraction, new ways of seeing emerge for us:

Evidently a different nature opens itself to the camera than opens to the naked eye – if only because an unconsciously penetrated space is substituted for a space consciously explored by man. Even if one has a general knowledge of the way people walk, one knows nothing of a person’s posture during the fractional second of a stride. The act of reaching for a lighter or a spoon is familiar routine, yet we hardly know what really goes on between hand and metal, not to mention how this fluctuates with our moods. Here the camera intervenes with the resources of its lowerings and liftings, its interruptions and isolations, its extensions and accelerations, its enlargements and reductions. The camera introduces us to unconscious optics as does psychoanalysis to unconscious impulses.

In this description of film, Benjamin stresses the way the capturing of reality transforms our perception of reality, but his focus here seems to be on camera movement and visual effects. Bresson, on the other hand, tends to have minimal camera movement and an absolute fidelity to the ontological consistency of the photographic image within the shot. For him, where reality is transformed is not within the shot but between the shots: in editing.

Bresson found himself in some difficulty about how to describe his job. As he puts it: ‘I reject the title “director.” It applies to filmed theatre. The same as the French, “metteur en scène”’. Similarly he rejects ‘realisateur’, since he is ‘not realizing anything’ but rather ‘borrowing from reality, taking pieces of reality’ which he ‘then put[s] into a particular order’. This stress on the ordering of shots instead suggests the title ‘metteur en ordre’, a placer-in-order. For Bresson, this ability to arrange shots is key to the specificity of film art. He puts it very clearly, ‘No absolute value in an image. Images and sounds will owe their value and their power solely to the use to which your destine them’. As such, Bresson aims to create meaning through the relationships established between things within the film. He seems, either strategically (he wishes his work to be sui generis) or honestly (he constantly stresses how little he goes to the cinema), to be unaware of the large body of work on the theory and practice of montage that developed in the first decades of the Soviet Union. However, Bresson’s montage practice is markedly different to the Soviet theories, and perhaps even more radical. For the Soviets, montage was designed to direct interpretation. In its most basic form it bolsters the depiction of psychological realism in the film, denied to it in contrast to theatre, by the absence of living actors. Thus the famous Kuleshov Effect, used most notably in Pudovkin’s films, where, when the same image of a face is paired with different images, audiences read the face as portraying different facial expressions. Whilst Eisenstein dispensed, mostly, with this psychologising, famous sequences of ‘intellectual montage’, his work still leaves little doubt about meaning. Take, for example, the famous sequence in October (1928), where the socialist-gone-bourgeois head of the Provisional Government, Kerensky, is intercut with images of a mechanical peacock. Even in the most sophisticated and self-reflexive practitioner of montage, Dziga Vertov, whilst meaning is not so readily forced, there is still an ultimate aim of montage: dialectical synthesis. The sequences of shots of modern workers in Odessa in Man with a Movie Camera (1929) aim to envisage a socialism of the uplifting synthesis of apparatus and subject.

Bresson, on the other hand, does not direct meaning through montage. Rather he obfuscates it. He aims for an ‘Equality of all things. Cézanne painting with the same eye and the same soul a fruit dish, his son, the Montagne Saint-Victoire’. This radical equality of things either pushes meaning out of the picture altogether. Like a haiku, the only critical relation to the work could be to restate its existence. Or it leaves a radical openness of interpretation to what Rancière would call the emancipated spectator. Or both…

Bresson’s technique of montage though simultaneously, paradoxically and inscrutably works against the ontological consistency of the image, which might, at first, seem to be bolstered by this equality. As he puts it:

‘What I do […] has to do with images, images and sounds, images that come into contact with each other and become transformed. But the images themselves must have a certain quality. This quality is, perhaps, neutrality. They can’t contain too much drama – this is very difficult to accomplish! Only by way of contact with other images can they themselves become dramatic. The challenge is discovering the way to capture each image – from what angle – in order to give it this value, which is an exchange value’.

Curiously, Bresson sees this in economic terms that, again, stress the absolute materialism of the image. What theses images transform into, though, is something highly inscrutable. He never explains it beyond terms like the ‘dramatic’, which are never truly defined. What seems to be implied here is a sort of value-added, which we might schematise in paraphrased Marxist terms as ‘Image-Montage-Image’. What this value is remains, in Bresson’s own work, a mystery.

In order to establish this equality of all things on the screen, Bresson develops a radically different attitude to the human roles in his film. It is well-known that Bresson did not use professional actors in his major works, though he stresses repeatedly he does not dislike actors, but they are the correct material for a certain form: the theatre, not the film. Bresson: ‘the actor must speak loudly – already his tone is deformed. There is a theatrical tone that has rubbed off on the cinema. But there is a way of speaking in films that isn’t just about being in tune, the way a piano is in tune. I’m also attempting to assign a common ancestry to my characters – for the sake of unity above all’. What he means by this is that actors must become another part of the relations between things – they must no longer be elevated by human distinctiveness above the world of things. As such, for Bresson, actors become ‘models’. The model is essentially an automaton: ‘Models who have become automatic (everything weighed, measured, timed, repeated ten, twenty times) and are then dropped in the medium of the events of your film – their relations with the objects and persons around them will be right, because they will not be thought’. To achieve this, the models were put through gruelling rehearsal practices, repeating their lines tens or hundreds of times, until emotion and expression were absolutely eliminated from them, and they become like the inanimate and machinic things which they are surrounded by in the film and recorded by for the film. According to Bresson though, this opens up new perspectives of interpretation: ‘What they lose in apparent prominence during the shooting, they gain in depth and truth on the screen. It is the flattest and dullest parts that have in the end most life’.

This seems to point towards a common interpretation of Bresson: that his films embody an austere but transcendent Catholic spirituality of the doctrine known as Jansenism. Jansenism was a distinctive Catholic theology of the seventeenth century, which appealed to Pascal and Racine amongst others, and stressed asceticism, original sin, predestination and salvation through grace. It is a critical commonplace to see Bresson as spiritual and transcendent, as in Paul Schrader’s book, Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer, or Susan Sontag’s essay, ‘Spiritual Style in the Films of Robert Bresson’. Bresson was a practicing Catholic and in the interviews about his film The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962), he is asked directly about his Jansenism. Here he is reluctant to align himself with the theology of Jansenism: ‘The moral…It’s not about “musts,” or rules for survival. “True morality thumbs its nose at morality”. I believe instead in an absence of dissimulation, in a kind of uprightness’.

However, where Bresson does suggest an affinity with Jansenism is in the material: ‘Yes, I have been given the label “Jansenist.” In the sense of someone who dislikes ornament and excess, who likes what is stripped down, naked. I know electricians have to strip the wires in order to join them if they want the current to flow’. Again, here, he returns us to the material existence and production of film. I think what these two books offer us, most of all, is a new way of looking at Bresson, a new pathway of interpretation to his films. Not the definitive one, but a suggestive one nonetheless. Bresson directs us not to the spiritual but to the material. He stresses, constantly, the materiality of what he depicts and the importance of its means of production. He does not offer his own interpretations of what this might mean, but leaves the pathway open for us to interpret. At a turning point in bourgeois subjectivity in the 1960s and ’70s, critics and theorists turned to the nineteenth-century novel to understand its origins and critique its death throes. In the west, we are beginning to see the installation of a machinic subjectivity underpinned by the utter degradation of the populations of the global south. Bresson may, on the surface, seem a strange figure to relate to this situation. But he makes clear to us that he is theorising relationships between machine and human, and degradation and grace, in a specific material context, which might, unexpectedly, be of particular value to us today. It is a pressing question to ask what are the relations between the human, the animal, the angel and the machine. Fassbinder was prescient when he said Bresson would be more important in the future than anything made contemporaneously with him. More important than an lesson on filmmaking in this book is Bresson’s clear political position, made as he approached the age of 80: ‘Young people have to refuse to submit to a conception of life that will annihilate everything that has the potential to cause joy’.


Tristan Burke has a PhD on nineteenth-century novels from the University of Manchester. He has written about literature, cinema and critical theory for 3:AM Magazine, The Manchester Review and the Everyday Analysis Collective

Robert Bresson (1901–1999) was born in Bromont-Lamothe, France. He attended the Lycée Lakanal in Sceaux, and moved to Paris after graduation, hoping to become a painter. He directed a short comedy, Affaires publiques, in 1934, but his work was curtailed by the outbreak of World War II. He enlisted in the French army in 1939 and was captured in 1940, spending a year in a labor camp as a prisoner of war. After his release he returned to Paris and directed Angels of Sin (1943), his first full-length film, under the German occupation. Les dames du Bois de Boulogne  followed in 1945, and in 1951 Diary of a Country Priest was met with widespread acclaim. His next film, A Man Escaped  (1956), which follows the memoirs of André Devigny, a French Resistance leader incarcerated during World War II, became a hit. He made eleven more films over the next three decades, including Mouchette, Au hasard Balthazar, Pickpocket, Lancelot of the Lake, and L’Argent. Throughout his career Bresson eschewed the use of theatrical techniques and employed nonprofessional actors whom he referred to as models. Raised in the Catholic faith, he worked on and off throughout his career on an adaptation of the book of Genesis, which never saw fruition. He died in Droue-sur-Drouette at the age of ninety-eight.

Jonathan Griffin (1906–1990) served as the director of BBC European Intelligence during World War II. Among the authors he has translated are Jean Giono, Fernando Pessoa, and  Nikos Kazantzakis. A collection of Griffin’s poetry, In Earthlight, was published in 1995.

Anna Moschovakis is a translator and editor, and the author of several books of poetry, including I Have Not Been Able to Get Through to Everyone (2006) and You and Three Others Are Approaching a Lake (2011), which won the James Laughlin Award. She is the recipient of awards and grants from the New York Foundation for the Arts, the Fund for Poetry, the Edward F. Albee Foundation, and has completed an apexart residency in Ethiopia. Moschovakis lives in Brooklyn and Delaware County, New York.

Image“This is a true story. I offer it to you as is, without ornament.”, Caren Litherland, Creative Commons