The Elements of Style

Notes on the Cinematograph BY Robert Bresson. New York Review Books Classics. . $14.

The cover of Notes on the Cinematograph

Robert Bresson's Notes on the Cinematograph holds a special place on the small shelf of books about filmmaking by filmmakers. First published in 1975, this slender and endlessly quotable manifesto by one of the cinema's supreme masters remains, for the receptive reader, potentially seismic. As distilled and exacting as his films, Bresson's compendium of epigrams—its title misleadingly translated in previous English editions as Notes on Cinematography and Notes on the Cinematographer—is film theory at its most aphoristic, the cinephile's equivalent of Letters to a Young Poet, a book to be read in an afternoon and pondered for a lifetime.

In four decades, Bresson made only thirteen features, works of extraordinary lucidity and profound mystery, of absolute rigor and overwhelming emotion. Most of his characters—who include an imprisoned resistance fighter (A Man Escaped), an obscurely motivated petty thief (Pickpocket), and a suicidal young wife (A Gentle Woman)—are searching for a liberation of sorts, whether or not they know it, and most of his films assume the form of a quest for the essential, for a state of grace. Bresson came to movies late, having started as a painter, and he would attempt to exercise as much control over a collaborative, industrial medium as an artist has over his canvas. His allergy to compromise meant that the films were few and far between. Reflection, whether by inclination or necessity, was part of his process. "Precision of aim lays one open to hesitations," he writes in Notes, which he took several decades to complete, adding that Debussy would spend a week "deciding on one chord rather than another."

Many of Bresson's "notes" are mere sentence fragments: "Unusual approaches to bodies." "Not artful, but agile." Some, more carefully honed, resemble Zen koans: "Empty the pond to get the fish." Others take the form of concrete imperatives: "When a sound can replace an image, cut the image or neutralize it." There are kernels of pragmatic advice, as when he extols the value of the "small subject" that allows for "many profound combinations" (with bigger themes, "nothing warns you when you are going astray"). And befitting his taste for contradiction, there are paradoxes aplenty. "Put oneself into a state of intense ignorance and curiosity, and yet see things in advance," he writes, splitting the difference, as did many of his films, between chance and predestination.

While the tone verges on didactic, these are less cardinal precepts than notebook jottings, albeit highly methodical and developed ones that add up to an original philosophy of composition, editing, sound, and acting in cinema. Many of these ideas were repeated and expanded on in his occasional encounters with the press, a selection of which can be found in the newly translated Bresson on Bresson: Interviews, 1943–1983. Presented chronologically, these profiles and conversations reveal occasional refinements of thought—evolving attitudes to color, say, and to casting—but on the whole attest to the remarkable coherence and consistency of his body of work.

Widely celebrated but rarely imitated, Bresson died in 1999 at the age of ninety-eight, his lifetime corresponding almost exactly to cinema's first century. The singularity of his work stemmed above all from a conviction that this still-young art form was distinct from all the others, and full of latent possibilities. ("Everything to be called into question," he writes in Notes.) Like Dziga Vertov and the revolutionaries of the modernist Soviet cinema, who pronounced a death sentence on the films that came before for mixing in "foreign matter," Bresson bemoaned the "terrible habit" of using theatrical techniques in movies, a convention only exacerbated by the introduction of sound. ("The TALKIE opens its doors to theatre which occupies the place and surrounds it with barbed wire.") Most cinema amounted to filmed theater for Bresson, and as such constituted reproduction and not creation.

The Bresson we would come to know did not fully emerge until the 1950s, with Diary of a Country Priest and A Man Escaped, but most of his ideas were there from the start. In the earliest interview in the new collection, from 1943, the year of his first feature, Angels of Sin, he maintains that performers should "behave" and not act. There is already a suspicion of virtuosity—he prefers "an artlessness . . . that thumbs its nose at virtuosity"—and he declares himself happy to commit "crimes" against the "pre-established laws" of the medium. The self-confidence of these assertions notwithstanding, the journalist remarks on the "simplicity and sincerity in this man," and indeed the neophyte director, the most materialist of spiritually inclined artists, likens his work to humble artisanal labor: "A good craftsman loves the plank he planes." In later interviews, he would compare himself variously to a carpenter determining the length of a table leg; an electrician who must "strip the wires . . . if they want the current to flow"; and a gardener engaged in "transplanting and propagation," seeding bits of reality in his film.

Despite its apparent modesty, Bressonian style was also a forceful act of resistance, so stark a departure from the prevailing language of narrative cinema that Bresson would come to insist on an alternative term for his aesthetic system: not le cinéma but le cinématographe. His most famous and blatant strategy is his disavowal of professional actors, and indeed his rejection of much of what passes for screen acting: a theatrical tendency to gesticulate, to project outward, to render thought and feeling crassly legible, a speciousness made even more false by the unblinking gaze of the camera. Bresson would eventually come to use only nonprofessionals, whom he termed models, and who were called on to deliver their lines with minimal inflection. (Some, like the perfectly inscrutable Dominique Sanda of A Gentle Woman [1969], would go on to actual acting careers.) Even with the donkey that was the title character of Au Hasard Balthazar (1966), Bresson declined to use a trained animal; he had to stop the film for two months to prepare it for the circus scenes.

"Radically suppress intentions in your models," Bresson writes in Notes. He asked his performers to empty their minds of thought, to speak as if to themselves, and he subjected them to dozens of takes so their actions and words would become automatic, like a pianist practicing scales. Bresson's remarks sometimes put his relationship with his models in a vampiric light—he generally used an actor only once, and spoke of drawing out their "virgin nature"—and sometimes a mystical one. "Between them and me," he writes, "telepathic exchanges, divination."

Robert Bresson at a screening of Diary of a Country Priest, ca. 1951. © Robert Doisneau/Rapho
Robert Bresson at a screening of Diary of a Country Priest, ca. 1951. © Robert Doisneau/Rapho

The blanker the models, the more they seem to withhold—from the stoic protagonist of Pickpocket (1959) to the zombie youth of The Devil, Probably (1977)—the more we are invited to read into them. This radical conception of character engenders an unusual, and startlingly potent, form of empathy. In Bresson's schema, the actor does not provide a point of identification, but is reduced to a formal element, a human figure (or a donkey, for that matter) as a tabula rasa. Central to this gambit is the question of interiority that is so important for Bresson, who more than almost any other filmmaker deemed cinema the realm of the ineffable. Discussing Pickpocket, he speaks of his interest in "the way in which concrete things . . . make their way into the life of a soul"—a line that could apply to his entire oeuvre.

Conventional wisdom holds that literature is the narrative art best suited to accessing inner life, but Bresson thought that cinema, with more means at its disposal, could do even better. "The novel tells, describes," he says in a 1949 interview. "The cinema does not describe the field, the town, an interior. You are there." Throughout Notes and in his interviews, Bresson alternates between a respect for cinema's powers and a chagrin at its misuse. Addressing Jean-Luc Godard in a 1966 Cahiers du cinéma interview, he says, "I, like you, believe that the camera is a dangerous thing—meaning it's too easy, too convenient, we have to almost forgive ourselves for it."

Combating the camera's tendency to reveal too much, to rely on the full-body proscenium framing derived from theater, Bresson developed a language of fragmentation and elision. His camera isolates gestures and looks, closes in on faces and hands and feet, lingers on objects and spaces; the pinpoint precision of his sound tracks suggests a world beyond the frame. ("A locomotive's whistle imprints in us a whole railroad station.") Even though Bresson made films of piercing beauty, he shunned the picturesque, calling for "not beautiful images, but necessary images." What mattered was not the images per se, but what happened to them in combination with other images and sounds. Bresson likened this to the work of a poet: "The most ordinary word, when put into place, suddenly acquires brilliance." In several interviews he recounts the boredom that his collaborators inevitably feel on set, only ever having partial glimpses of the whole. For Bresson, the cinématographe is an art of relations and a process of constant transformation, as he vividly describes in one of the most frequently quoted passages from Notes: "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."

Notes commences with a vow of purification—a pledge to "rid myself of the accumulated errors and untruths"—and abounds with prohibitions. "No psychology (of the kind which discovers only what it can explain)." "No music as accompaniment, support or reinforcement. No music at all.Except, of course, the music played by visible instruments." No ostentatious camera movements: "One should not use the camera as if it were a broom." Many of its injunctions lean toward minimalism: "The faculty of using my resources well diminishes when their number grows." "One does not create by adding, but by taking away." The sparer and more modest the materials—flattened images, impassive line readings, minor subjects (when adapting the likes of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, he opted for short stories)—the greater the possibility of transcendence. By many measures Bresson was a minimalist, but as anyone who has sobbed through the struggles of Mouchette or the death throes of Balthazar knows well, he strove for maximal effects, "thinking first and foremost of the end," as he put it, quoting Leonardo. "Production of emotion determined by a resistance to emotion," he writes in Notes.

While there exists a trove of astute critical writing on Bresson, much of it anthologized in a volume edited by James Quandt, who organized a landmark touring retrospective in the late '90s, Notes is hard to beat as an introduction, a book that at once exemplifies and explicates Bresson's work and worldview. Shorn of ornamentation and gratuitous anecdote, this "technical book," as Bresson called it, is the fittingly terse testament of a man who kept details of his private life largely to himself; no biography of Bresson exists in any language.

Asked in 1977 what "the young Bresson" was like, he replies: "As if I could tell you! Violent? Absolutist? Excessive? Lots of alcohol and tobacco." The picture that emerges in the interviews is of a cultured man, apt to quote Montaigne, Pascal, and Chateaubriand, and a cautious one, painstaking in his responses and, as one journalist observes, "tortured by the prospect of unwittingly disclosing too much." On the subject of his Catholicism, a perennial fixation of Bresson scholars, he declares simply: "Faith is in me, it is me." Recalling his experience as a prisoner of war during the Occupation, he says, with characteristic understatement: "Certainly a bit of war, a bit of captivity left their mark." Elsewhere, he matter-of-factly allows for a link between the life and the work, remarking on the preponderance of doors in his films: "When you're in prison, nothing is more important than the door."

There is no doubting Bresson's importance to legions of younger filmmakers—Godard pronounced him synonymous with French cinema—and yet more than once, he confessed to feeling alone in his endeavors: "I would like not to be the only one to find my way out of the woods." Later in life, he spoke of his wish to establish an atelier, not for technical instruction but to promote the kind of attentiveness necessary for creation: "I would make them want to look and to listen." Bresson was not the kind of artist who inspired a school of disciples—attempts to mimic his style are often doomed to mannerism—but his example as a hard-nosed visionary is more relevant than ever, just as Notes, with its commitment to rethinking the very form of cinema, stands as an implicit rebuke to the homogenizing forces of today's film schools and screenwriting labs.

Bresson is often branded a pessimist—his last two films, The Devil, Probably and L'argent (1983), were also his bleakest—but there is an implicit optimism in his view of his art. While cinema has been proclaimed a dying medium for almost its entire existence, under threat from the invention of sound, television, digital technology, and so on, Bresson always contended that it was just being born. Films were "at the stage of academic painting," he said, and the cinematographe was nothing less than "a writing for tomorrow." Speaking to Cahiers du cinéma in 1983 about the last film he would ever make, Bresson concludes the interview with a double-edged assertion of disappointment and defiance: "The cinema is immense. We haven't done a thing."

Dennis Lim is the director of programming of the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the author of David Lynch: The Man from Another Place (New Harvest, 2015).