August 17, 2017

Learn From Bresson: Be Precise and Keep it Simple

One of the greatest filmmakers to have ever lived demonstrates how less is, in fact, more.

The late Robert Bresson is responsible for an extremely influential roster of films including Pickpocket, A Man Escaped, and Au Hasard Balthazar. Every single one of them is brought together by a noticeable thread: simplicity.

The first thing to point out is that Bresson is very precise with what he allows the audience to see on screen. You could call this an effort in visual economy.  He provides them with the opportunity to fill gaps in the storyline with ideas that he only alludes to. Here are some of the ways the director achieves this.

Withholding information allows for an ultra-effective cathartic release as it reaches its conclusion. 

Condense Time

One of the ways Bresson practices precision is by condensing time in certain parts of his films. Thirty seconds can cover a time span of a couple months. Not only does this move the plot forward, but the audience is forced to make assumptions of what has happened due to characteristics of the protagonist's personality. What he reveals makes them take special attention to what has changed and what has stayed the same over the course of time.

Withhold Information

His selection of images and the sequence they come in leave a lot open to audience interpretation. This withholding of information and emotion is retained by the audience so that it builds up inside of them throughout the action of the entire film. This allows for an ultra-effective cathartic release as it reaches its conclusion. 

Use Objects as Story Devices

Take his use of objects, for example. Kogonoda, a video essayist who just released his own first feature Columbushas previously explored Bresson’s use of hands, and is a dedicated student of the director's technique. His latest video essay (above) on Bresson's use of doors highlights how they provided the director with a natural rhythm. A complete story with diegetic sound is pulled off in a single shot. A door opens and a door closes. The audience is left to find the meaning behind the action.

Focus on Action

In fact, a focus on action is another way Bresson strengthens his emphasis on simplicity. It’s the action that causes the destruction. This tactic is perhaps most notable in The Pickpocket, where the focus shifts from a simple object to the action of theft from which the object has inspired desire. The action of theft is then what causes the character's demise.

Many times in his films, when it's time for the character's demise to occur, however, the actual action happens off screen. This technique of prolonging the reveal is one of the most useful takeaways for any filmmaker from Bresson's work. Holding off that reveal and letting the audience's imagination linger on what could possibly be happening over the parts they can't see allows for maximum impact upon its resolution.      

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