Robert Bresson: The Grace of Gesture & 'Notes on the Cinematographer'
If there is a patron saint of French cinema, surely it must be Robert Bresson, considered, after Renoir, the greatest of 20th century Gallic filmmakers. Jean-Luc Godard, no slouch himself in the French director's department, once observed that, "Robert Bresson is French cinema, as Dostoevsky is the Russian novel and Mozart is the German music." High praise indeed. A new video supercut from Kogonanda for the Criterion Collection focuses on the director's inimitable use of gesture in his films. Plus, the director's own notes on cinematography and cinema.
Though he only made 13 films in a fifty year career, Bresson's influence is outsized. The relative paucity of his output is a testament both to his exacting working methods and difficulty in finding funding. Much has been written about Bresson, including Paul Schrader's book, Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer, and no less a giant than Andrei Tarkovsky once said that, "I am only interested in the views of two people: one is called Bresson and one called Bergman." Bresson was influential on the French New Wave, and they acknowledged his influence, though Bresson could be viewed as an uncle to the rebellious generation of filmmakers; his films were not nearly as experimental or confrontational.
One of his chief aims, though, was to extricate cinema from theater (he made his first short in 1934, when the proscenium arch was still used by many filmmakers as an aesthetic guide, and many movies were, in essence, filmed plays). He used editing, light, sound, and all the elements of a motion picture in order to paint a picture, and in this supercut video by Kogonanda, we see firsthand, in a montage of shots where the only thing visible are hands, how much drama can be wrung from the smallest gesture:
Calling himself a "Christian atheist," Bresson's lapsed-Catholicism can be seen in his films, in which metaphors for salvation and grace commonly repeat, as in A Man Escaped, which is partly based on the year he spent in a German POW camp during WWII, but which can also be seen as a metaphor about the human spirit striving for freedom.
In his reaction against the filmed plays of traditional French cinema, Bresson used his unique sensibility to establish what he referred to, in a special, Bressonian, aesthetic sense (not the technical one) as "cinematography," that is, a language of image and editing entirely apart from the traditional, narrative mise en scène; one based on cuts, sounds -- the very stuff of cinema that makes it unique from every other art form. One of the techniques he used to achieve his ends was to film multiple takes of a scene, until whatever "artifice" in the performance of the actor had been worn away through repetition, and so, by his estimation, a more truthful performance could be obtained.
To that end, he wrote his Notes on the Cinematographer. (It appears to be out of print, and the few copies I've found seem to range from $100 to $900, but I'm sure cheaper copies are extant, and there are fragments on the internet, available for educational use.) Below, courtesy of White City Cinema, check out a few of the hundreds that make up the book :
- Not to use two violins when one is enough.
- A whole made of good images can be detestable.
- Let the cause follow the effect, not accompany it or precede it.
- A too-expected image (cliché) will never seem right, even if it is.
- When a sound can replace an image, cut the image or neutralize it. The ear goes more towards the within, the eye towards the outer.
- No psychology (of the kind which discovers only what it can explain).
- Hide the ideas, but so that people find them. The most important will be the most hidden.
- Empty the pond to get the fish.
- Make visible what, without you, might perhaps never have been seen.
- 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.
The book is wonderful reading, and, lastly, here's a short clip of Bresson discussing cinema:
Robert Bresson was a giant among directors, a consummate "filmmaker's filmmaker," who was able to make ugly things pretty, and pretty things beautiful, and the rest of it transcend what we normally imagine is possible in cinema.