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New Left Review 104, March-April 2017


Emma Fajgenbaum

AN APHORIST OF THE CINEMA

In his Notes on the Cinematograph, Bresson quotes a sentence spoken by Racine to his son Louis: ‘I know your handwriting well enough, without your having to sign your name.’ [1] Robert Bresson, Notes on the Cinematograph, New York Review Books: New York 2016, $14, paperback, 88 pp, 978 1 68137 024 8; and Bresson on Bresson: Interviews 1943–1983, New York Review Books: New York 2016, $24.95, hardback, 285 pp, 978 1 68137 044 6. Of the thirteen feature films Bresson directed over a career of forty years, it could also be said that they require no signature or, rather, that their signature is embedded in each film already—an economical and anti-theatrical style identifiable by its syntax of faces, hands, isolated objects and empty spaces, shot starkly with a 50mm lens and cut to a rhythmic soundtrack stripped of musical accompaniment. To read Bresson’s Notes alongside his interviews gives the same experience, of an author who needs no signature. A small book of runic observations, composed for the most part over the decade of the 1950s, sets out a manifesto for the precise, elliptical style, defined by its uses of suppression and subtraction, that made Bresson famous: a director who admired Debussy for playing the piano with the lid down, an apt enough metaphor for his own restraint. In giving textual articulation to his cinematic style, Bresson’s epigrammatic reflections sit alongside classics of the genre from Eisenstein and Tarkovsky. Bresson on Bresson, published by nyrb for the first time in English to accompany its reissue of his Notes, collects forty years of interviews, each conducted in response to a new film, organized chronologically by his widow. The book also includes stand-alone interviews on two pillars of Bresson’s style—soundtrack and adaptation—as well as a 1975 interview conducted to mark the publication of the Notes. Unlike the more lapidary aphorisms, these were interviews produced for a wider public in French periodicals and on tv panel shows. They leave mixed feelings. On the one hand, a certain frustration: Bresson’s precision and economy—and his commitment to editing—constrain them, as he retreats from the fire of conversation to rearticulate, often repetitiously, positions already familiar from the Notes. On the other hand, perhaps despite himself, in the dialogue form something does inevitably escape the auteur’s control; the most successful parts of Bresson on Bresson engage its subject to expand on his method and sources, enriching the canonical image of cinema’s ascetic moralist.

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