Robert Bresson: philosophy in his cinema, films to watch

Table of Contents

Introduction

Talking about Robert Bresson, in the age of TV series and original films on streaming platforms can be complex. These impeccably packaged films are nothing more than photocopies and re-chewing of previous films, of different artistic depth, which are proposed as new cinematic products.

Fortunately, Robert Bresson lived in another era, he was able to make his films in another context. It wouldn’t have had an easy time in an era of mass homologation of cinematographic language, in which the public is slowly losing the ability to recognize an artistic product.

Robert Bresson is precisely the director who perhaps best represents the opposite of this current homologation. Creator of a rigorous cinema that rests on solid philosophical and spiritual foundations, a tireless researcher of the aesthetic forms and the profound meaning of all the components of the production of a film, Robert Bresson would have simply felt horror in front of one of these films defined today by the press and from the public “masterpiece”. And Bresson has shot several real masterpieces.

The life of Robert Bresson

Robert Bresson, born in Bromont-Lamothe in France on 25 September 1901, under the sign of Libra, was one of the greatest directors of French films and the history of world cinema, master of minimalism.

Minimalism, the working of subtraction, the practice of rigor and the essential seem to be the winning cards not only of Bresson’s films, but of many great masters of the cinematographic art.

Robert Bresson’s cinematic style remains a unique and highly original testimony of how you can create films starting from your own ideas and personality, without conforming to what has already been done. Robert Bresson is one of those few directors who invented “his cinema”.

Robert Bresson

Robert Bresson graduated in philosophy and is interested in painting and photography. In 1934 he made his first short film, Les affair publique. The film recounts, in a style defined by Bresson himself as “burlesque”, the day of an imaginary dictator. The copy of the film, believed to have been lost, was found many years later and is kept at the Cinemateque Francaise. 

During the Second World War Bresson was captured and held in a prison for a year. He will use this dramatic experience to find inspiration and shoot his famous film A Sentenced to Death he fled

Robert Bresson’s films

Robert-Bresson

In 1943 he made his first feature film Les anges du péché. The interest in Robert Bresson’s cinema is immediately highlighted spirituality and the transcendent. In fact, the subject is written by a Dominican father. The story tells the story of a group of nuns locked in a convent where good coexists with evil, where sinners are welcomed to live under the same roof. 

For the next film The Ladies of the Bois de Boulogne, from 1945, Robert Bresson is inspired by a short story by Diderot based on Jacques the fatalist and his master. The brilliant director and poet collaborates with the dialogues Jean Cocteau. But the film is a total commercial fiasco. 

In 1951 he made his first masterpiece Diary of a Country Priest inspired by a novel by Bernanos. For the first time ever, Robert Bresson focuses completely on his own spiritual interest with a completely austere, rigorous style, devoid of dramatic artifice. 

Robert-Bresson-Diary-of-a-Country-Priest

In 1956 he shoots another masterpiece. Starting from his experience as a prisoner and inspired by a short story by André Devigny, he realizes A Man Escaped. Truly incredible film, one of the greatest expressions of cinematography of all time, the film is made with very little, almost non-existent means. 

Robert-Bresson-A-Man-Escaped

The images focus insistently on the details in the prisoner’s cell as he prepares his escape. Hands digging into the wall, repetitive gestures behind which hides an explosive yearning for freedom. A claustrophobic, mechanical, and obsessive film with an extraordinary liberating catharsis at the end. The protagonist’s escape from his cell becomes something transcendent, a moment of liberation of the spirit that can take on many meanings. 

In 1959 he made Pickpocket. The film follows the vicissitudes of a pickpocket, vaguely inspired by Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Bresson’s style is once again extraordinary and unique. 

Robert-Bresson-pickpoket

In 1962 he shoots The trial of Joan of Arc, a story told by another great master of cinematographic rigor, Carl Theodor Dreyer. This is probably his most extreme film where the rigor and austerity of Robert Bresson’s cinema are pushed to the highest levels. 

In 1966 he created another masterpiece Balthasar. The film is an allegorical fable about the evil that pervades the human being. The protagonist is a donkey named Balthasar who suffers all kinds of harassment and malice from humans. A miraculous film: Bresson’s cold and scientific style turns into a deeply emotional tale. A universal metaphor about the nature of shivering evil.

Robert-Bresson-au-hasard-balthasar

In 1967 he made Muuchette. This film is also a reflection on evil, through the vicissitudes of a girl who is inexorably heading towards the decision to commit suicide. 

In 1969 he made A Gentle Woman using color for the first time and a professional actress like Dominique Sanda. This film is also a reflection on evil. It tells a woman’s path to suicide through flashbacks from her past relationship. 

In 1971 he made Four Nights of a Dreamer inspired by Dostoevsky’s White Nights. In 1974 he directed his most expensive production, a period film, Lancelot of the Lake. Obviously Bresson avoids falling into the historical film’s spectacular traps and focuses on the essential details and characters. 

In 1977 he made The Devil, Probably a tale on Marxism and the youth of the time, with Reflections on Ecology and Sexuality. In 1983 he made his latest film Money, a reflection on money and its power. 

Robert Bresson’s style

Robert Bresson is one of the revolutionaries of French cinema that has changed the aesthetics of films, devoting itself exclusively to the research and experimentation of film as an art. His style essentially consists in subtracting every spectacular and manipulative element of the viewer: drama, music, camera movements, spectacular scenography: there is none of this in Robert Bresson’s cinema. 

Bresson used as actors what he preferred to call models. Ordinary people or actors called on the set to ‘not act’. Bresson in fact invited them to pronounce the words in a mechanical way, in order to reveal their true essence. Robert Bresson’s cinema is a wait in the search for truth. 

His is a complex thought, a philosophical system that uses cinema as a mirror of a wider system of values. One thing is certain: Robert Bresson really had very, very clear ideas before he acted, before he wrote a film. His ideas laid an extraordinarily solid foundation for one of the most coherent filmographies ever made. 

But to try to understand his thinking it is certainly better to read the statements and reflections of the director himself. 


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Robert Bresson’s ideas on cinema, art, life 

Robert-Bresson

“I am opposed to filmed theater and I believe that, as long as cinema borrows its expressive means from theater, there cannot be a true cinematographic language, which must absolutely forget the theater and not use actors. In all the films we see there are not only actors, but also their way of conceiving life, movement, jokes are only theater. 

Cinema must be anything but, it must be an exhibition of documents of life, this is its privilege: to bring the past back to the present. Everything must happen in the moment, and this is the opposite of theater. Theater is an admirable convention – and I admire it – but, in fact, everything in the theater must be conventional, and of a homogeneous falsehood; when the “truth” is introduced into the theater, everything collapses because the truth becomes false. For this reason everything in the theater must be false, because only then d is admirable, thanks to the theatrical convention. 

Direction of the actors by Robert Bresson

Robert-Bresson-pickpocket

The sense of a film is what word and gesture together cause, something that passes behind a face, something indefinable, mysterious and magnificent. When you have film dialogues written by professional theater writers and then acted by theater actors, what you do is no longer cinema, but filmed theater. 

Nor does the interpreter need to know what he is doing, and for this reason I never show my actors the work done during the day, since I want them to have almost no awareness of their character. 

What matters is not what the actor reveals, but what he hides. This extraordinary invention, this extraordinary device that is the cinematograph, can be a means of creation, or just a reproduction device. 

Cinema and other Arts 

There is a big difference between a painting, a sculpture, a work of art and the photographic reproduction of that same work. Well, the cinema that is made is nothing other than the reproduction of theatrical representations recited by actors, that is, it is only a reproduction that has neither the value nor the power of the thing represented, just as the photographic reproduction of a statue has no neither the expressive power nor the artistic validity of the statue. 

Capturing and ordering reality

Bresson and Truffaut

This is why cinema of a certain type is valid insofar as it is reproduction, as it allows us to see the same thing on a screen, in our country, at the same time as all countries of the world. While, on the contrary, if this device is considered a means of research, discovery, “capture” as no machine in the world had ever done before (capturing something, that is, affirming what you are not even aware of), if you resume , I was saying, from the point of view of brute reality, which constitutes the raw material, you can, separately and at a later time, place them in an order that is not the natural one but the one desired by you, as does the poet who takes the words from the dictionary and then put them in a certain order. 

Then only you create, then only cinema becomes a creative art. It is not so much a question of reductions to the essential, but rather of applying the principle of imprisoning, of capturing absolute things in life in a pure state: a look, a gesture that is not the theatrical one of the actor, but a gesture not meditated upon, not thought of by the one who does it, while the one done by the actor who is already, in itself, an artistic object, is always meditated on. 

In fact, the mistake made by making the photographed theater is that of not taking into consideration the automatism that exists in life; the nine-tenths of the actions that are performed are automatic, and this proves that the cinema currently being made is false, because it reproduces prefabricated attitudes, while the real ones of life are automatic. 

A film is the fruit of a certain moment, it is the present of the continuous present. It is the word that makes us think, not the thought that makes us speak. The incommunicability of human beings is the basis of everything I do. The subject is a pretext. More than the subject, it is the form that educates and elevates. 

The spontaneity of the actors 

Robert-Bresson-mouchette

There is a beautiful phrase from Degas that says: “The Muses never talk to each other: they just dance together every now and then”. I do my best to do what I do. It comes out of the ugly and the beautiful, and this mixture is me. I have the impression that I can never do everything I should. It is not true, as they say, that in my opinion the actors don’t have to do anything. They just have to be spontaneous. 

Experience has taught me that the more automatic I am, the more moving I am. Dramatic art is something to be avoided, it has no relationship with the cinema. Using the tools of the theater to make films is like planing with a saw. Without drama, the cinema would be in excellent health. There is no creation without order. I use the processes of nature and then put them in a certain order. The taste is in the choice. 

Order is disorder 

There are two excesses: order and disorder. In the cinema it is difficult not to show things. You have to show them without showing them. I show only part of the things to make guess the rest. You don’t have to have the spirit of an executor, even of your own plans. Nature must be rediscovered, but without copying it. When an electrician wants to connect two wires, he discovers them, otherwise the current will not flow. It is in the joints that poetry is found. 

A person you meet on the street is a walking statue with impulses. As soon as the eyes meet, a human warmth develops. Many battles have erupted at the intersection points of the map. What we see is not what the camera sees. Emotions cannot be reproduced without regularity and without control. 

Painting and writing 

Cocteau and Clouzot

It is the film that gives life to the characters, not the other way around. Poets do not denature nature. I just try to paint. I don’t think cinema should go towards psychology, otherwise we would fall into dialogue, into words. I rather believe in painting, in writing, but more in the former than in the latter. 

The word is provocative of something, and that something is the cinema. I believe that the cinema has not yet been made. There have been attempts, but the theater has crushed them. Ideal conditions are likely to occur in a very long time. I think cinema is drowning in cinema itself right now. 

The cinema has been lost from sight. It will take tens of years to find it. It is precisely and above all the spontaneity that I try to obtain, through mechanical means, from those I call my models. As for the theory (which is rather a method), how can I explain? I understand very well that you don’t like to reveal “how” you make a novel, a sonata, a painting or a film: I understand less well that you don’t ask yourself. 

Color and black and white 

I can’t conceive of how one can work (no matter what) without method. The absence of method leads to chaos or mediocrity. A color film cannot be the end of painting since the film is nothing but a mechanical reproduction. If it pleases the eye it is another way of pleasure without analogy with the pleasure that a canvas, a painting can give. 

A black and white film may be closer to painting because, for example, the green of a tree it suggests is closer to the true green of this tree than the false photographic green of a color film. 

Film production 

If I didn’t shoot more often it was only for lack of means. I couldn’t find any producers, they didn’t trust me. I wish I could shoot without interruption, film after film. But it is certain that when you have the opportunity to think about a film from A to Z, it takes a long time to write it, mature it, prepare the details. 

The reductions from novels or short stories that I have done have allowed me a faster pace of processing. I ignore the deep reasons why audiences or critics love or dislike what I do. In either case, whether I appreciate it or not, there is often a misunderstanding. I am not at all unhappy with surprising, for better or for worse. 

Loneliness and the art of waiting. Over time, and at my expense, I have learned to cultivate a difficult art: believing in what you do and knowing how to wait. I’m not interested in a certain number of films but a certain type of film. I do jobs that can give answers to my anxieties. 

Robert Bresson and Bernanos

Bernanos

Bernanos said that loneliness is for those who are saved. I am alone? I don’t believe it. I have an intense life of relationships and affections. Am I isolated? Likely. Of course I don’t want to be confused with others. On the other hand, everyone has his own path in front of him. Mine goes towards the unknown, but it is a road on which in any case, as a given, as a reference, there is nature, man. 

We are both Christians: this is already a communion of interests, an elective affinity. But what attracts me most about Bernanos is the absolute lack of literary psychologism in his novels. In fact, in my opinion, cinema must not express itself in words but must be leaked through images. Then there are, in Bernanos, certain perspectives, certain perspectives, as far as the supernatural is concerned, which are sublime. 

Robert Bresson and the after life

I see death not as an end but as a beginning, the beginning of a new life in which the revelation of that love on earth just glimpsed can be found. And at this point the concept of God takes over. Pain as an occasion for faith and hope. Prison is opposed to the desire for freedom, for evasion, even if freedom and evasion lead to death (or suicide): at the end of a long tormented spiritual journey which is, I repeat, the beginning of a life.

Robert Bresson’s actors

Robert-Bresson-A-Man-Escaped

No actors. (No direction of actors). No roles. (No study of roles). No staging. But the use of models, taken from the street. Being (models) rather than looking (actors). Patterns: movement from the outside to the inside. (Actors: movement from the inside out). What matters is not what they show me but what they hide from me, and above all what they do not suspect exists in them. 

Between them and me: telepathic exchanges, divination. Two kinds of films: those that employ the means of the theater (actors, staging, etc.) and use the camera in order to reproduce; those who employ the means of the cinema and use the camera in order to create. Cinematograph writing moving images of sounds. 

An actor, in the cinema, is like in a foreign country. He doesn’t speak the language. Cinematographic film in which expression is achieved through relations of images and sounds, and not through mimicry, or gestures and intonations of voice (of actors, or non-actors). To your models: “Talk as if you were talking to yourself.” Monologue instead of dialogue.

The true nature of moving images 

The truth of the cinema cannot be the truth of the theater, nor the truth of the novel, nor the truth of painting. What the cinema achieves with its means cannot be what the theater, the novel, the painting achieve with their own. 

If an image, considered in itself, clearly expresses something, if it involves an interpretation, it will not transform in contact with other images. The other images will have no power over it, and it will have no power over the other images. Neither action; nor reaction. It is final and unusable in the cinema system. 

Applying myself to insignificant (non-significant) images. Editing a film means connecting people to each other and to objects through gazes. About two deaths and three births The film is born for the first time in my head, it dies on paper; he is resurrected by the living people and the real objects I use, which are killed on the film but, placed in a certain order and projected on a screen, are reanimated like flowers in water. 

Cinema as the creation of relationships 

Robert-Bresson-details

Visible discourse of bodies, objects, houses, roads, trees, fields. Creating does not mean deforming or inventing people and things. It means establishing new relationships between people and things that exist, and how they exist. You will bring your models back to your rules, they letting you act in them, and you letting them act in you. Opposing the relief of the theater with the “smooth” of cinema. 

No accompanying, supporting or reinforcing music. No music at all. Except, of course, music produced by visible instruments). Noises need to become music. He turns around. Nothing in the unexpected that is not secretly awaited by you. Cinema draws on a common fund. The cinema goes on a voyage of discovery on an unknown planet. 

Grasping moments. Spontaneity, freshness. A sigh, a silence, a word, a sentence, a noise, a hand, your model in its entirety, his face, still, the movement, in profile, in front, an immense view, a narrow space … Everything exactly in its place: these are your only means. 

It would not be ridiculous to say to your models: “I invent you as you are.” Don’t run after poetry. It penetrates by itself through the joints. You gave him gestures and words. He gives you back a substance. Ideas: hide them, but in a way that is found. The most important will be the most hidden. Not to turn to carry out a thesis, or to show men and women fixed in their external appearance, but to discover the material they are made of. 

Template. What you make known about yourself in coincidence with him. May every image, every sound gravitate not only towards your film and your models, but towards yourself. Reorganize the scattered noises of a street, a railway station, an airport… Take them back one by one in silence and measure their agreement. 

The exchanges that occur between images and images, sounds and sounds, give the people and objects in your film their cinematic life and, through a subtle phenomenon, unify your composition. Opposing the resources of haste, of noise, that of slowness, of silence. Template. The motive that makes him say this phrase, make that gesture, is not in him but in you. The causes are not in your models. On stage tables and in Cinema films, the actor must make us believe that the cause is in him. 

Natural voice, artificial voice

Robert-Bresson-balthasar

The voice: soul made flesh. Artifact, as in X, it is no longer a soul or flesh. Precision instrument, but a separate instrument. Your film will have the beauty, or sadness, or etc., found in a city, countryside, house, and not the beauty, or sadness, or etc., found in a photograph of a a city, a countryside, a house. 

You will make an art with the beings and things of nature, purified of all art and in particular of dramatic art. Corot: “We must not seek, we must wait.” The real that reaches the spirit is no longer such. Our eye too reflective, too intelligent. Two kinds of real: 1. The brute real, recorded as it is by the camera; 2. what we call real and which we see distorted through our memory and false calculations. 

The eye is generally superficial, the ear deep and inventive. The whistle of a locomotive suggests to us the vision of an entire station. Make appear what, without you, would perhaps never be seen. 

Assembly. Phosphorus that suddenly releases from your models, floats around them and merges them with objects. Assembly. Transition from dead images to living images. Everything blossoms again. The actor who studies his role presupposes a “himself” known in advance (which does not exist). 

The fragmentation of the montage is indispensable if one does not want to fall into representation. Seeing beings and things in their separable parts. Isolate these parts. Make them independent in order to give them a new dependence. A film of yours is not made for a walk of the eyes, but to penetrate it, to be completely absorbed by it. 

Commercial film and art film 

Directors-Nouvelle-Vague
The directors of the Nouvelle Vague

Ridiculous disproportion between immense possibilities and results: star-system. To the safety of the actors you oppose the grace of the models who do not know what they are. A cold commentary can, by contrast, warm the warm dialogues of a film. Phenomenon analogous to that of heat and cold in painting. Musical silence, thanks to a resonance effect. 

The last syllable of the last word, or the last noise, like a held note. The tracking shots and flashy panoramas don’t match eye movements. It is like separating the eye from the body. It is not a question of acting with “simplicity” or of acting in an “interior” way, but of not acting at all. 

Provoke the unexpected. Wait for it. Your audience is not the audience of bookstores, nor that of shows or exhibitions, or concerts. You do not have to satisfy the literary taste, nor the theatrical, or pictorial, or musical taste. Don’t show all aspects of things. Indefinite margin. Model that, in spite of himself and you, frees the real man from the fictional man you had imagined. 

The mystery of images 

Getting the public used to guessing the whole of which they are given only a part. Make her guess. Create the desire. It is not the likely person that our eyes and ears demand, but the real person. Cinema, radio, television, magazines are a school of inattention: one looks without seeing, one listens without hearing. See instantly in what you see what will be seen. 

Your room doesn’t stare at things as you see them. It doesn’t get what you make them mean. The most usual word, put in the right place, takes on a sudden splendor. It is with this splendor that your images must shine. I remember an old movie: Trente secondes sur Tokyo. Life was suspended for an extraordinary thirty seconds, in which nothing happened. In fact, it all happened. 

Cinematograph, art, with images of not representing anything. Ten properties of an object, according to Leonardo: clarity and darkness, color and matter, shape and position, distance and proximity, movement and stillness. Theater is something too well known, cinema too unknown, at least until now. 

The future in independent cinema 

Robert-Bresson

It takes many to make a film, but there is only one who makes, undoes, returns to remake images and sounds, returning every moment to the initial impression or sensation, incomprehensible to others, which gave birth to images and sounds. The future of cinema belongs to a new breed of lonely young people who will shoot by committing the last money they have and without letting themselves be caught up in the material bottlenecks of the profession. 

The public doesn’t know what they want. Impose your wishes, your pleasures on him. Novelty does not mean either originality or modernity. How many things can be expressed with the hand, the head, with the shoulders! How many useless and cumbersome words disappear then! What economy! It is from the compulsion to a mechanical regularity, it is from something mechanical that emotion will arise. 

Think of certain great pianists to understand it. Producing emotion by obtaining it through resistance to emotion. Those horrible days, when it disgusts me to turn, when I feel exhausted, helpless in the face of so many obstacles, are part of my working method. How many faults, not only in the public, can a lazy, lingering criticism make, which judges from the perspective of the theater!

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