editorial essays


Filmmakers on Film

"Notes" on Notes on the Cinematographer

Donato Totaro, donato@offscreen.com

April 30, 2004

Though not exactly voluminous, there is a longstanding tradition of filmmakers who have written critically on cinema. The nature of this writing has taken many forms, from strictly theoretical (early Soviet masters Kuleshov, Eisenstein, Vertov, Pudovkin, Pier Paolo Pasolini), to essayistic (Carl Dreyer, Antonioni, Guy Maddin), to interview-based (Truffault’s Hitchcock on Hitchcock, the Farber "X on X" series, etc.), to poetic/philosophical (Andrei Tarkovsky), to autobiographical (many), and to more conventional film criticism (the New Wave auteurs, Dario Argento, Olivier Assayas). Robert Bresson wrote a slim volume  of his thoughts on cinema called Notes on Cinematographer which defies categorisation.

What is striking and unique about Bresson is how his writing is so much like his filmmaking: the elliptical style, the epigrammatic prose, the obtuse meanings, the material rigidity, the conciseness, the frugality of means. It is all there in both his work and his words. Andrei Tarkovsky, whose own work of film philosophy Sculpting in Time is among one of the finest written by a filmmaker, admitted that not all of the aesthetic and theoretical ideals he writes about were consummated in his film work. The only filmmaker whom he felt did match up with his theoretical ideal was Bresson.  This is another indication of the uncanny similarity between Bresson’s writing and film style.

It would be ludicrous for me to try and replicate Bresson’s inimitable writing style, but I’d like to honor his prose by varying my own writing style and allow for a free-form, speculative probing of his classic work Notes on the Cinematographer. Over the following pages I will respond to selected passages of Bresson’s book with a combination of spontaneous responses, analytical interjections, and frame stills from Bresson’s films.

To begin, Bresson’s use of the term “Cinematographer” is not to be restricted to its traditional meaning: a person who is placed in control of a film’s lighting. In short, “Cinematographer” is the art of moving sound and image. Moving in the fullest sense of cinema’s vast potential for movement and rhythm: editing, actor movement, object movement, camera movement, and the intended movement that the eye ordains both in the diegetic world and the spectator’s vision unto that world.

The Model

“If, on the screen, the mechanism disappears and the phrases you have made them say, the gestures you have made them make, have become one with your models, with your film, with you –then a miracle” (Bresson, Notes on the Cinematographer, p. 33).

“Models. Mechanized outwardly, Intact, virgin within” (Bresson, 77).

“An actor needs to get out of himself in order to see himself in the other person. YOUR MODELS, ONCE OUTSIDE THEMSELVES, WILL NOT BE ABLE TO GET IN AGAIN” (Bresson, 43). [1]

The First Bressonian 'model': Claude Laydu as the priest in Diary of a Country Priest

The ‘model’ is the single word that appears most often in Notes on Cinematographer, and the term most evoked by critics trying to describe Bresson’s cinema language. To Bresson the model refers simply to the performer who lays bare their soul to the camera. The model is sometimes used interchangeably with actor, but the two are not identical. Model encompasses an attitude, the Bressonian attitude, which goes beyond performance.

There are two general senses we can give to the meaning of “model.” Since so many of Bresson’s performers are physically attractive, the term can refer to its most obvious meaning: a person of compelling beauty with the classic physique of a fashion model: slim, gaunt, almost weak and sickly looking in some cases. A second more nuanced possibility is ‘template,’ meaning as a prototype. This makes sense when you consider that Bresson never used the same actor twice, hence each actor provides their own template which is then broken and reshaped by another model.

Interchangeable Models: Lt. Fontaine (Francois Leterrier) from A Man Escaped....

....and the 'superhuman' pickpocket Michel (Martin Lassalle from Pickpocket)

Paradoxical Thought

Unbalance so as to re-balance” (Bresson, 33).

“Absolute silence and silence obtained by a pianissimo of noises” (Bresson, 38).

“Practice the precept: find without seeking” (Bresson, 56).

“Simultaneous precision and imprecision of music” (Bresson, 57).

“Provoke the unexpected. Expect it” (Bresson, 90).

Running throughout Bresson’s book is this notion of paradoxical thought, of the incongruent: movement in stillness, emotion in neutrality, expression in stoicism, silence in sound. I would summarise this with my own Bressonian phrase: “Create a formidable construct and then make it disappear.”

Materialist or Spiritualist?

See beings and things in their separate parts. Render them independent in order to give them a new dependence” (Bresson, 84).

In Colin Burnett’s two-part essay “Reassessing the Theory of Transcendental Style” he refers to the ongoing critical debate between those who persist on seeing Bresson as an unrepentant ‘Transcendentalist” and those who read him as a “Materialist.”  A likely response is that he is at once both, someone for whom the beauty and the horror of the spiritual is manifest on earth through bodily presence, the physicality of objects and the relationship between the two. Perhaps the most important being the latter, as the above quote suggests. This is why he gives so much space to objects that sear through the screen’s surface significance and reverberate upon the emotional state of the human character. Is his attachment to bodily detail and physical objects just that: a love of things themselves? Or does the probing go further? Perhaps this partially explains the many suicides that occur in Bresson’s films: suicide as an expression of the ultimate and final separation of spirit and body, the transcendent from the material. In either case, one can never truly claim that Bresson is a Materialist in the sense of one who believes only in the reality of matter. Bresson’s film world, or at least the experience of viewing his films, is more complex than what any duality could suggest.

The Devil, Probably

Montaigne: The movements of the soul were born with the same progression as those of the body(Bresson, 34-35).

This quote again invokes the noted debate between the Transcendentalists and Materialists. The body = the soul, not the body and the soul. This passage and its repercussions recalls Henri Bergson’s attempts in Matter and Memory (1897) to resolve the mind-body dualism. To help solve this age-old philosophical problem Bergson distinguished between two types of memory, habit formed memory and pure recollection (habitual memory and pure memory).  The former is stored in the brain (matter), the service-house of action, and the latter within consciousness (life).  The brain, with the aid of perception, censors the memories and selects the one's that are most necessary for immediate action. Pure perception helps select what is necessary for the bodily function.  However, pure perception and pure memory exist only in theory because perception is always affected by memory and pure memory is dependent on the brain for materialization.  Therefore the brain, which cannot actually produce a representation or image, can be seen as the meeting house for mind and matter. 

Bergson applies this logic to attain balance between idealism (mind) and realism (body).  Neither pure consciousness nor pure things-in-themselves exist wholly independently of one another. Although the brain and the body may be matter based and consciousness and pure memory spirit based, common sense dictates that they intersect, since the mind/brain/consciousness partakes of the same ‘material’ world. Likewise in Bresson’s films, one gets the sense that objects and human beings never “exist wholly independently of one another.”

Out of this we can construct a Bergsonian thought which suggests Bresson’s ‘materialist’ spiritualism: perception is consciousness projected out into the world of matter. Perception is a selective function of the brain that appraises the field of matter according to its bodily purpose or action.  One could understand Bresson’s exacting editing in much the same way, isolating only what is necessary to the singularity of the action. Like the brain, Bresson’s directing functions as a “service-house” of action “censoring” his model’s emotional spectrum by having them repeat lines again and again as “A way of recovering the automatism of real life” (Bresson, 59). What features as an unhappy yet necessary part of quotidian life in Bergson’s philosophical understanding of social utility -habitual, ‘memorized’ behaviour- becomes a source of instinctive and lucid meaning in Bresson’s films.

Inward Movements

Unusual approaches to bodies. On the watch for the most imperceptible, the most inward movements” (Bresson, 34-35).

“Your camera catches not only physical movements that are inapprehensible by pencil, brush or pen, but also certain states of soul recognizable by indices which it alone can reveal” (Bresson, 97).


What can Bresson mean by “inward movements”? The ‘movement’ that we paradoxically see in stillness? This can again be related to Bergson. The mind perceives the real world, creates an idea of it, but the mind itself is made of the same substance as that which it imagines. Hence Bresson, like Bergson, makes no distinction between movement imagined or movement seen, which translates cinematographically, to movement expressed through editing and static glances, or movements enacted physically through moving subjects or moving camera.

Bergson writes that it is indisputable that one man is distinct from another man, as is each tree or stone; and yet, “…the separation between a thing and its environment can not be absolutely definite and clear-cut; there is a passage by insensible gradations from one to the other: the close solidarity which binds all the objects of the material universe….[2]  Bergson’s ‘insensible gradations’ parallel Bresson’s ‘inward movements,’ which inform the metaphysical link that exists between objects and humans across all of Bresson’s work.

A Man Escaped: Fontaine's Food Bowl....'Spiritualised' Object

On Sound

The rhythmic value of a noise” (Bresson, 42).

“Against the tactics of speed, of noise, set tactics of slowness, of silence” (Bresson, 52).

Why does Bresson give such great stress on sound, even more so than the image? There are two general responses. The following quote points the way to the first:

One forgets too easily the difference between a man and his image, and that there is none between the sound of his voice on the screen and in real life”  (Bresson, 60).

We can see here how sound has a more realistic and graphic potential than the image.

Both the camera and the sound recorder are mechanical interventions, and yet Bresson sees one as being less of a distraction as a reproduction of the original. What this implies is that the ear is less likely to discern or be ontologically bothered by a technologically mediated difference. The ear accepts reproductions more willingly than the eye.

“A locomotive’s whistle imprints in us a whole railroad station” (Bresson, 72).

For Bresson sound evokes a spectator’s imaginative faculties more than any images can, which pits Bresson against the commonly held Western bias for the hierarchy of sight over the other senses. 

The Soundtrack Invented Silence” (Bresson, 38).

Here we are reminded of another stalwart cinema enfant terrible, Stan Brakhage, who once said in relation to his own late era silent films, that true silent cinema only became possible with the advent of sound.

All husbands are ugly” (Bresson, 40).

The priest encounters the wrath of an 'ugly' husband from Diary of a Country Priest

 “Your images will release their phosphorus” (Bresson, p. 82).


On Looks

 “The ejaculatory force of the eye” (Bresson, 12).


Be sure of having used to the full all that is communicated by immobility and silence” (Bresson, 20).

“Don’t let your background (avenues, squares, public gardens, subway) absorb the faces you are applying to them” (Bresson, 29).

One does not create by adding, but by taking away. To develop is another matter. (Not to spread out.) (Bresson, 87).

“Empty the pond to get the fish” (Bresson, 87).

“Obvious travelling or panning shots do not correspond to the movements of the eye. This is to separate the eye from the body. (One should not use the camera as if it were a broom) (Bresson, 89).

No director has ever expressed as much with as little. Bresson recalls the great electric blues guitar masters, such as  B.B. King and Albert King, who would express more with their limited range of pet phrases than other guitarists would with their busy, rapid-fire speed runs. Like those blues masters, Bresson demonstrates just how important style is. On the surface Bresson’s films may seem like a neo-realist mantra about showing 90 minutes in the life of a man where nothing happens. Bresson’s films also show us the mundane non-happenings and non-dramatic aspects of life, but they feel completely different from the neorealist trappings of Zavattini, Rossellini, and De Sica. Why? Firstly, the sucking out of drama is done dramatically: things that are normally shown are withheld. In The Devil, Probably,  the camera is inside a bus with its load of passengers. We hear the sounds of an accident, screeching wheels and a loud bang, but the camera stays inside filming the uneventful fully opened bus door (doors being a central recurring ‘prop’ in Bresson’s work). Things that are shown are shown with abnormal force and precision. One only has to recall the many close-up shots of ‘working’ hands and fingers and pockets and purses in Pickpocket; in one famous exchange (also in a bus) the fluid montage likens the art of thievery to a majestic ballet. As Raymond Durgnat nicely phrased it, “The physical is spiritualised; the eternal verities permeate the material world. The location photography –‘neo-realism’- express not just a particular place, a ‘mood’, but a spiritual condition of man without God.”(46)[3]

I’ll leave the final words to Andrei Tarkovsky, who was, notoriously so, not one to throw away compliments:

Robert Bresson is for me an example of a real and genuine film-maker…He obeys only certain higher, objective laws of Art…Bresson is the only person who remained himself and survived all the pressures brought by fame. [4]

[1] All quotes by Robert Bresson are taken from Notes on the Cinematographer. 1975 With an Introduction by J.M.G. Le Clézio. Translated from the French by Jonathan Griffin (London: Quartet Encounters, 1986).

[2] Matter and Memory.  Translation from the French by Nancy Margaret Paul and W. Scott Palmer. 1896. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1988, p. 209.

[3] Raymond Durgnat, “Le Journal d’un Cure de Campagne,” in The Films of Robert Bresson, ed. Ian Cameron. (New York: Praeger, Inc.), 42-50.

[4] Andrei Tarkovsky, printed in “Kinovedcheskie zapiski 14, 1992, quoted in Julian Graffy, “Private Lives of Russian Cinema,” Sight and Sound March 1993, 29.