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.’ 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.
Little is known of Bresson beyond what he said about cinema. His admirers have shown little curiosity about his origins or early life, which have yet to be studied at all seriously. Born in 1901 in a tiny village in the Massif Central, he won a place at the elite Lycée Lakanal in the Parisian suburb of Sceaux, emerging with the hope of becoming a painter. Though Bresson often referred to this first vocation (‘Painting has done many things for me, including push me, and teach me, to make films’), nothing seems to be known of his formal preferences or the kind of paintings he produced. Friends with Max Ernst in Paris when he switched to celluloid, his first film, a short madcap comedy that flopped, Les Affaires publiques, was funded in 1934 by Roland Penrose, Picasso’s biographer and later the husband of the photographer Lee Miller. In 1939 he began work on a screenplay with René Clair, a project cut short by the onset of war. Enlisting in the army, he was captured in 1940, spending a year in a German prisoner-of-war camp, and returning on his release to occupied Paris where he made his first feature film in 1943: Les Anges du péché, co-written by Jean Giradoux. Arriving in the cinema at the twilight of poetic realism and fifteen years before the Nouvelle Vague, Bresson was never easy to situate. Though Cocteau wrote the dialogue for his second film, Les Dames du Bois de Bologne (1947), based on a tale in Diderot, to all intents and purposes Bresson seems to have forged his cinema alone. A project nurtured for over thirty years, La Genèse, which would span the creation of the universe to the Tower of Babel, remained unrealized at the time of Bresson’s death in 1999.
Though Les Anges du péché and Les Dames du Bois de Bologne used professional actors and had conventional, even somewhat melodramatic plots, their formal devices hinted at what was to come. It was with The Diary of a Country Priest (1951), based on a story by Georges Bernanos, that Bresson developed the severe, minimalist style with which he became identified and which altered only slightly over the years, though his subjects and sources ranged widely. This was the period in which Bresson composed his Notes, articulating in Pascalian maxims a ‘system’ that counterposed le cinématographe, associated with the pure writing of images, to le cinéma, still beholden to the mimetic fakery of theatre. (The term is rendered uneasily in English as the ‘cinematograph’, not the ‘cinematographer’ as the literal translation would have it.) The first note in the book announces its author’s intention to discard the inherited baggage of filmmaking: ‘Rid myself of the accumulated errors and untruths. Get to know my resources, make use of them.’ Spoken in the first person, the injunction bespeaks an almost solitary quest, to return to cinema’s very beginnings and its most basic materials. The following note declares the principle of Bresson’s signature economy: ‘The faculty of using my resources well diminishes when their number grows.’ Further down the page: ‘Metteur-en-scène, director. The point is not to direct someone, but to direct oneself.’ Then, a list:
No actors. (No directing of actors.)
No parts. (No learning of parts.)
But the use of working models, taken from life.
being (models) instead of seeming (actors).
If by the 1960s the use of non-professional actors in film was no longer so unusual—Pasolini said he had an ‘almost ideological, aesthetic preference’ for them—Bresson’s early break in 1951 helped prepare the ground for this, though its radicalism was often misunderstood. For Bresson, the substitution of ‘models’ for actors became a central tenet of an art that lacked the ‘physical presence’ of the theatre, its ‘flesh and bone’. Even the term ‘models’ directs us away from drama, towards sculpture and painting, paring away all elements of theatricality. If actors project, creating a ‘movement from inner to outer’, in Bresson’s words, models do the opposite: they do not pretend, but ‘act’ themselves. ‘Everything has to stay inside, nothing can escape.’ The human being, not the actor, was to become the primary material of cinematography, and to this end he made his models as unselfconscious as possible, instructing them to be mechanical rather than performative: interiority was to be transmitted through the ‘magical device’ of the camera. Montaigne is quoted several times in both books: ‘Every movement discovers us.’
Another line Bresson was fond of quoting came from Degas: ‘The muses never talk to one another, but sometimes they dance together.’ Or, as he put it elsewhere in his Notes, ‘the truth of cinematography cannot be the truth of theatre, nor the truth of the novel, nor the truth of painting.’ Bresson’s suspicion of ‘filmed theatre’ extended to distaste for recorded music-hall material in cinema. Increasingly he moved away from instrumental scores in his films, using sound as a replacement for, rather than an adjunct to his images. When a sound can stand for an image, the image is cut or neutralized: ‘What is for the eye must not duplicate what is for the ear’; or, ‘One cannot be at the same time all eye and all ear.’ The result is a soundtrack in which diegetic noises—the rhythm of keys on metal railings, the noise of footsteps on cement or the clang of armour during a jousting match—become akin to music. He took pleasure in rhythm itself, painting with sounds as elsewhere with images. ‘To find a kinship between image, sound and silence. To give them an air of being glad to be together, of having chosen their place.’ Here his muse was Milton: ‘Silence was pleased.’ Stripping away the inherited baggage and subtracting from the common sense of cinema, Bresson sought access to the basic material of le cinématographe: reality. ‘I want to be, and try to be, as much of a realist as possible, using only candid bits lifted from real life,’ Bresson said in an interview in 1965.
These elements of Bresson’s system found consummate expression in a quartet of films made across the 1950s and early 60s that marry formal unity with thematic consistency. In The Diary of a CountryPriest (1951), A Man Escaped (1956), Pickpocket (1959) and The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962), action has contracted to the fortunes of the lonely self and its quest for redemption, religious or otherwise. In the first of the suite, a young curate struggles in his rural parish to communicate God’s message; in the second, a member of the Resistance plans and succeeds in escaping from a Gestapo prison; in the third, the trick of a Raskolnikov-type thief ultimately delivers him to jail (and—‘by what strange path’—to his salvation); in the fourth, the action has already taken place: Joan is in chains on the eve of her martyrdom. If the microcosm of three of these films is a prison, Bresson’s interest lies in his characters’ interior confinement, and in a language that is purely cinematographic, one that is developed out of and against the novel-form: each of the four films is based on a literary text (Bernanos’s novel; a memoir of André Devigny’s escape from prison; a loose adaptation of Crime and Punishment; and the trial transcripts from the Castle of Rouen). Three of the four utilize a first-person voiceover, delivered close to monotone, always in a relation of dissonance with the images on screen; in Joan of Arc, Bresson translated a third-person transcript into Joan’s own words. These films court the literary text with a certain reticence, pulling back from the lush, theatrical adaptations of le cinema de qualité, with its presumption of equivalence between book and film.