Become a better student of movie-making through the unique ideas of Robert Bresson.

This book is a quick and easy guide to Robert Bresson’s ideas about movie-making, and to his movies.

Introduction

Robert Bresson (1901-1999) was a French movie director. Over 25 years in mid-career, he compiled some reflections about movies as an art form and applied these in his work.

In 1975, Bresson published his reflections as Notes on Cinematography. His ideas remain essential reading for students today because many of the movie-making issues explored there are fundamental and not just about the state of the art during his time.

Apart from his Notes, Bresson may be best known for two tragedies, “Au Hasard Balthazar” and “Mouchette,” and for a black comedy commenting on modern society, “The Devil, Probably.”

Bresson Stats

Movies Directed

Movies in the Top 250

Award Wins

Movie Insights in the Book

How does this introduction aid students?

  1. It selects from among the Notes to introduce only the most important themes.
  2. It re-arranges the presentation topically, following the stages of movie production.
  3. It contains observations, reflections, suggestions or criticisms of Bresson.
  4. It concludes with a consideration of the movie storylines and issues tackled by Bresson in his style.

Topics Covered

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On the Nature of Movie Performances

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The Beginning

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The Audience for a Movie Performance

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On Origins and Source Material

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On the Creator’s Mindset

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On Shooting and Recording

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On Visuals or Images

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On Music or Sounds Accompanying Images

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On People in a Movie Performance

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On Editing a Movie Performance

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The End

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Brief Commentaries on Bresson's Themes

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On the Nature of Movie Performances

N

The Beginning

N

The Audience for a Movie Performance

N

On Origins and Source Material

N

On the Creator’s Mindset

N

On Shooting and Recording

N

On Visuals or Images

N

On Music or Sounds Accompanying Images

N

On People in a Movie Performance

N

On Editing a Movie Performance

N

The End

N

Brief Commentaries on Bresson's Themes

Preview

On the Nature of Movie Performances

1. Creating movies is writing with moving images and sounds.

2. There are two types of movies: those that employ the resources of the theater (actors, direction, etc.) and use the camera to reproduce. And those that use the camera to create, employing all the resources integral to a movie performance.

3. The truth of a movie performance cannot be the truth of theater. Or the truth of the novel. Or the truth of painting. What the movie creator captures with his or her resources cannot be what a theater production, the novelist, or that painters capture with theirs.

4. A “movie” cannot be a stage show. A stage show requires the presence of flesh-and-blood. But it can be, as photographed theater, the photographic reproduction of a stage show. This is comparable to the photographic reproduction of a painting or of a sculpture. But a photographic reproduction of Donatello’s “Saint John the Baptist” or of Vermeer’s “Young Woman with Necklace” has not the power, the value or the price of that original work. It does not create a sculpture or a painting. A pure reproduction does not create.

5. Photographed theater requires a director to make actors perform a play and to photograph these actors performing the play; afterwards he lines up the images. But it is a bastard form of theater. It lacks what makes theater authentic: the material presence of living actors, direct action of the audience on the actors.

COMMENTARY: Bresson typically distinguishes three types of performance that one might see projected on a movie screen. Plays that one might as easily see on a stage. These are quintessential example of “photographed theatre.” Then there are performances freed from the stage but which still rely on stage conventions; especially, but not only, with respect to the activities of actors. In this, he is echoing the observation that stage is an actor’s medium while movies are a director’s medium. Bresson describes these as photographed theatre, too, but also as “Cinema.” His objective in raising this issue is to convince us these are different from, and inferior to, what he, following Sergei Eisenstein, calls “cinematography.” What we have described as movie performances. These rely on the camera, but not only the camera, for their dramatic power, as a sculptor might rely on a chisel, or a painter the brush.

6. A whole gaggle of undiscerning critics make no distinction between photographed theatre and movie performances. Opening an eye now and then to the actors’ inadequate presence and performance, but shutting it again at once. Obliged to like, in a lump, all that is projected onto the screens.

7. The terrible habits of theater.

COMMENTARY: Not terrible in the theater but terrible when relied upon in making movie performances.

8. Nothing rings more false in a movie than the tone natural to the theater, one of copying life and traced-over studied sentiments.

9. On the stage a horse or dog that is not plaster or cardboard causes uneasiness. Unlike a true movie performance, looking for a truth in the real is fatal in the theater.

COMMENTARY: Is this true? Or does it arise only because we are not used to seeing, say dogs, on stage? What about the reverse? Is anything “real” once we have shaped it into a narrative, or shaped it at all for that matter? Once we have made something interesting, or into any kind of performance, it has already been detached from being “real.”

10. Nothing more inelegant and ineffective than an art conceived in another art’s form.

11. Impossible to express something strongly by the coupled resources of two arts. It is all the one or all the other.

12. (1925 ?) The TALKIE opens its doors to theater, which occupies the place and surrounds it with barbed wire.

COMMENTARY: This is an interesting observation that projecting performances on a screen were stunted as an art form by the technological advance enabling recorded sound to accompany the recorded moving images.

13. Photographed theatre movies or photographed performances: historical documents whose place is in an archive: how a play was acted in 19.. by Mr. X, Miss Y. [Bresson uses “X” or “Y” as a polite way of leaving contemporaries that he criticizes as unknown.]

14. Hollow idea of “art movies” or “art films.” Art movies, the ones most devoid of the art.

15. To be as intended, photographed theatre movies can only use “stage actors.” Movie performances use models only.

COMMENTARY: How does one think of the people in movies? Are they inherently less central to the performance than actors on stage? Bresson contrasts the performances of stage actors, rooted in stage conventions, with what he calls the use of “models” in movie performances. He reflects on this at length in the selections we have collected under the heading “On People in a Movie Performance.”

16. A stage actor in a movie performance might as well be in a foreign country. He does not speak its language.

17. In movie performances expression is obtained by relations of images and of sounds. And not by a mimicry done with gestures and intonations of voice (whether actors’ or non-actors’). One that does not analyze or explain. One that recomposes.

18. In a movie performance, images, like words in a dictionary, have no power and value except through their position and relation.

19. Movie performances: a new way of writing, therefore of feeling.

20. In every art there is a diabolical principle which acts against it and tries to demolish it. An analogous principle is perhaps not altogether unfavorable to movie performances.

21. Formerly, Religion of the Beautiful and sublimation of the subject. Today the same noble aspirations: to scrape oneself clean of matter and realism, to emerge from vulgar imitation of nature. But the sublimation turns towards technique…. Photographed performance falls between two stools. It cannot sublimate either the technique (photography) or the actors (whom it imitates as they are). Not absolutely realistic, because it is theatrical and conventional. Not absolutely theatrical and conventional, because it is realistic.

22. What has passed through one art and is still marked by it can no longer enter another.

COMMENTARY: The emphasis here should be on “is still marked by it.” Most of Bresson’s movies, for example, were based on stories that originated in novels or short stories. Presumably, he believed he had stripped away their literary aspect while retaining the important themes or essential truths.

23. With the Beaux-Arts, no rivalry.

COMMENTARY: The “Academy of Beaux-Arts” is a learned society in France. The arts included are: painting, sculpting, architecture, etching and musical composition.

24. Some people, under the influence of movie performances are trying to change the stage; others, as they shoot their movies, get all tied up in its ancient habits, rules, codes.

25. Movie performances: emotional, not representational.

26. Movies today are at the stage of academic painting. Bouguereau’s Siege of Paris, where one seems to be looking at soldiers in some movie action which they have learnt.

27. Photographed theatre draws on a common fund. Movie performances are on a voyage of discovery on an unknown planet.

28. Theatre and photographed performances did not start from zero. Everything to be called into question.

29. The field of movie performances is incommensurable. It gives you an unlimited power of creating.

What other movie lovers think about Bresson.

Robert Bresson is one of the saints of the cinema, and “Au Hasard Balthazar” (1966) is his most heartbreaking prayer.

– Roger Ebert

Bresson is actually an incredibly dynamic film-maker. I learn a lot each time I watch one of his pictures. There’s a cheap dynamism that’s easily attainable through the many technological advances in movies, but in Bresson you get a true dynamism generated by the most elemental relationship between image and sound.

– Martin Scorsese

In the film, the master of the reflective mode is Robert Bresson. Reflective art is art which, in effect, imposes a certain discipline on the audience — postponing easy gratification…. All of Bresson’s films have a common theme: the meaning of confinement and liberty.

– Susan Sontag

Robert Bresson is for me an example of a real and genuine film-maker… He obeys only certain higher, objective laws of Art…. (t)he only person who remained himself and survived all the pressures brought by fame. Bresson has always astonished me and attracted me with his ascetics. It seems to me that he is the only director in the world, that has achieved absolute simplicity in cinema.

– Andrei Tarkovsky

A note from the author.

“I discovered Bresson through Andrei Tarkovsky’s recommendation and the Criterion Collection,” Shawn says. “Bresson thought there should be theatres dedicated to movies that need time to find their audience, or which may have to be viewed several times for the greatest enjoyment. We don’t live in that kind of world. But Criterion makes directors with uncompromising styles much more accessible. I support anything that helps fans to enjoy and benefit from challenging movies.”

Find out more about Shawn here.

How to Improve Your Movie Literacy with Robert Bresson

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