Bresson on Bresson: Interviews 1943
(NYRB Classics, 2016 )
Notes on the Cinematograph
(NYRB Classics, 2016)
In 1940, a French soldier named Robert Bresson was captured and detained in a German labor camp as a prisoner of war. Improbably, just two years following his release, the soldier would go on to complete a feature film, Les Anges du péché (1943). More improbably still, upon this film’s premiere, he would be interviewed by Je suis partout (literally, “I am everywhere”)—a far-right, ultra-collaborationist, avowedly anti-semitic French journal, then edited by Robert Brasillach, who would be executed for treason not long after the liberation of Paris.
In this strange, disturbing interview, Bresson is questioned by a fawning art aficionado who commends the French filmmaker’s “tenacious will.” Bresson’s bristling is refracted, but impossible to miss—his rebellion, though, is centered squarely on the arena of art: “People talk of art, of virtuosity. There is an artlessness that is superior, that thumbs its nose at virtuosity. If there’s a crime against some pre-established law that we are bound by conviction to commit, we will not hesitate.”
Over forty years later, in another interview, Bresson would convey a sentiment similar in nature, though in far less subliminal form. Here, his discontent blooms, expanding far beyond the domain of art. Here, he speaks of the necessity he feels to “express resistance, in the most direct way possible, to everything around [him].”
These two interviews more or less bookend Bresson on Bresson: Interviews 1943 – 1983, a new hardcover from NYRB Classics. Both statements of Bresson’s radiate the same kind of intransigence that served as the mainspring for everything he did. This is not to say that each of Bresson’s creations was yet another Guernica. His films, without doubt, are all unmistakably and unabashedly formalist—a quality that interviewers frequently seize onto, whether labeling these films astringent, severely restrained, highly mannered, having a totally otherworldly quality about them, and so on. Watching films like Au hasard Balthazar (1966) or Lancelot du Lac (1974) can feel a lot like receiving a broadcast from another dimension entirely. But if Bresson’s films seem at all bizarrely out of step with the times, it’s in large part because they are nothing short of an uncompromising rejection of them. Seldom has a feature filmmaker produced work as insoluble, as incapable of being incorporated or co-opted by commercial reason as has Bresson. Few others have dug their heels in against tides of worldly good taste and culture with such single-mindedness. And practically never before has anyone pursued this lonely path for as long and with such exacting rigor as he.
The interviews collected in Bresson on Bresson offer perhaps the single best account of Bresson’s practice and passion yet available, mapping the road from his first work to his last. For anyone unfamiliar, the short of it is this: a slight, unimposing, prematurely greying young man set out—after two relatively conventional features in the 1940s—on pursuing a radical conception of film. He names this conception “cinematography,” an art, he insists, that “is absolutely hermetic, absolutely autonomous,” an art “with its own language, its own means.” He distinguishes this art from that of “cinema,” which, to his mind, is little more than a degraded cultural pastime “beholden to capital.” Cinema to him is rotten fruit. It is, he repeats over and over, merely “filmed theater,” a derivative art in which “the camera is demoted to a tool of reproduction. I want the camera,” he stresses, “to be a tool of creation.” In his view, “the camera records everything […] with the stupidity of the mechanical, of a machine.” It is vocation of cinematography to use the indifference of this machine to capture pieces of reality—the most ordinary or abject, most raw and inert—and to arrange them in a certain order. After all, “a film is not made of images, it’s made of relationships between images. […] The same as with colors in painting; a blue is a blue, but if you put it next to a yellow, it’s not the same blue.” Editing, in short, is what allows each individual image to “vibrate.” (“Everything you see happening did not happen before the camera; it happened in the editing room.”)
With respect to his methods and intentions, Bresson is nothing if not forthright. “The goal, the destination of cinematography, of the cinematographic art, is interiority, intimacy, isolation: in other words, depth.” Interiority is not equal to intellectualism. Rather, it has to do with what he calls “the heart of the heart” of people and things, not psychologism or cerebral themes. Interiority, in this sense, is best understood in the manner meant by Walter Benjamin when he writes: “The painter maintains in his work a natural distance from reality, whereas the cinematographer penetrates deeply into its tissue.” Bresson was, in fact, a painter before he became a filmmaker, and his films can certainly betray a painterly sensibility—the scenes of the Seine in Four Nights of a Dreamer (1971), for example, are among the most beautiful in all of cinema. But his proclivities stray far from an appetite for the breathtaking shot. Indeed, Bresson’s usage of “cinematography” can’t be any further from the common currency of this word—that is, the noun regularly deployed to discuss a film’s composition or prettiness, qualities Bresson roundly decries as “postcardism.” His reasoning: “beautiful photography is always detrimental to what is essential.” And what is essential for Bresson is always the “interior adventure.”
Unignorable in all this is the tenor of a noticeably dated modernism, one that was already starting to show its wrinkles around the time Bresson began making films. And indeed, time and again in his interviews Bresson can be seen converging with a Proust (in his valorization of sensuous or immanent experience over “intellectual weightiness”) or a Schoenberg (in his affinity for strictness of technique and construction, prizing necessity over beauty) or a Kandinsky (in his regard for the spiritual in art) or even a Paul Valéry, in his subscription to the high modernist religion of art (in which, granted, art is simultaneously criticized and revered): “art is not a luxury but a vital need.”
What is most striking in Bresson on Bresson, however, is the light in which he is revealed in living conversation. Put simply, the image of him as a hoary, blustering, brooding, incorrigible modernist, evading questions by making appeals to labyrinthine formulas or rhapsodic sense, becomes plainly untenable. Though occasionally cranky, Bresson nevertheless consistently shows an earnest commitment to being understood and to communicating his vision with lucidity, generosity, and care. Even further—though uniformly maintaining his distance from films (“I don’t go to see them… they frighten me”)—he demonstrates a serious interest in prompting change, even a rupture, in the scene of cinema and the ways in which people consume it. He speaks of wanting to teach people to see and hear differently and better. He may habitually condescend the status quo, but never the public: “I have a feeling that people are much more intelligent, much more gifted—but that life crushes them. Immediately.” In the 1940s and ’50s, he touches on his desire to lead his audience “out of the woods.” In the 1960s, in discussion with Jean-Luc Godard for Cahiers du cinéma, he first mentions his impatience to finish a book he’s long had in mind. Why the urgency? “Because cinema is collapsing!! And what a fall it will be.”
Reading through Notes on the Cinematograph, eventually published in 1975, one could come away with the sense that this slim book is essentially a collection of an artist’s private scribblings and notes, however stunning their insights and lapidary the prose. What becomes clear in the interviews is that Notes was in fact a serious undertaking on which Bresson labored for decades. And, contrary to the modesty implicit in its title, it was intended to be at once gospel and jeremiad—aphoristic reflections addressed to the public with the express purpose of illuminating the true way and undermining the false.
Through this much-admired little book, Bresson has inspired many. (NYRB Classics is giving it a sorely needed re-release with an attractive new edition, accompanying the publication of Bresson on Bresson.) Still, he largely remains, as one interviewer put it in 1966, a “master without disciples,” arguably even truer now than it was then. With the exception of outliers like Kazakh filmmaker Darezhan Omirbaev, Angela Schanelec, perhaps the Dardenne brothers and a few more, it’s difficult to imagine a cinema more different from the one Bresson practiced and imagined than that of today’s. Performance, identity, identification, “relatability,” moral calculus, and an overarching, eminently marketable message—all properties wholly alien to Bresson’s staunchly anti-psychological, more fundamentalist approach to the seventh art.
The cleavage between Bresson’s films and those that predominate in our time is nowhere more prominent than when it comes to acting. In the interviews, he refers to his actors as “brute material,” as automatons and models. The suppression of theatrical emotivity is perhaps the cardinal law of Bresson’s method, resulting in a uniform flattening of performance. Each character, thus, comes to have what Bresson calls a “common ancestry.” Each is solitary, obstinate, often oppressed. His films traffic in the same types: the sick, the imprisoned, the outcast or marginalized, the objectified, the cursed, the rebel. But though categorizable into types, none is generalizable, none can be abstracted into “conditions.” French writer René Prédal has stated that, “however one takes it… [Bresson’s] work refuses to play the role of the mirror—be it realistic, true to life, reassuring, or even distorting, revealing, caricatural.” Bresson himself repeats it many times: “It is impossible to copy life. You have to find a way to create life without copying it.”
The mechanical stoicism of Bresson’s actors is best understood in this light. If his performers seem flattened or deliriously subdued, it is largely in order to conjure deep from within them what Bresson calls a kind of spiritual veracity, an automatic, unconscious real more true than reality. In the late seventies and eighties, during which time Bresson begins to inveigh more vociferously against the “massive forces of demolition that are ravaging the world,” the unconscious automatism of his films becomes a seismograph of this ravaging. Here, the spiritual—the nucleus of earlier films like Diary of a Country Priest (1951) and Au Hasard Balthazar—is little more than a faint glimmer. Films like The Devil Probably (1977) and L’argent (1983) become, to borrow Adorno’s words (and what better critic of intransigent modernism is there?), an unconscious transcription of historical suffering. Bresson’s films are many things. They are among the most maddeningly beautiful in all of cinema; each is like a wedge violently driven into the world. Bresson’s cinema is a monument to an idea of art that knows no compromise.