The Exhilarating Filmmaking of Robert Bresson Explored in Eight Video Essays

“Who’s afraid of Robert Bres­son?” New York­er film crit­ic Antho­ny Lane once asked. “Me, for a start.” But he did­n’t mean that he dread­ed screen­ings of Au hasard Balt­haz­arDiary of a Coun­try Priest, A Man EscapedThe Dev­il, Prob­a­bly, or any oth­er acclaimed work in the auteur’s fil­mog­ra­phy. “It’s not that I don’t look for­ward to a Bres­son pic­ture,” Lane clar­i­fied. “It’s just that as I shuf­fle into the the­atre I feel like a pupil approach­ing the prin­ci­pal’s door, won­der­ing what crimes I may have com­mit­ted and how I must answer for them.”

Even now, 35 years after his final pic­ture, Bres­son intim­i­dates with his rig­or — rig­or of the moral vari­ety, cer­tain­ly, but even more so of the aes­thet­ic vari­ety — often described (not least by the likes of Andrei Tarkovsky) in the terms of asceti­cism. Nev­er­the­less, Indiewire offers a brief and friend­ly intro­duc­tion to his cin­e­ma in the three-minute video essay at the top of the post.

Just above, in “Robert Bres­son: The Essence of Cin­e­ma,” A‑Bit­ter­Sweet-Life gets deep­er into the Bres­son­ian sen­si­bil­i­ty by show­ing clips of his films along­side clips of him work­ing and speak­ing, all nar­rat­ed with his own words.

“I always like to see and hear the film before I shoot it, to come up with things by work­ing on my own, things from my mem­o­ry or imag­i­na­tion, even if I don’t end up film­ing them,” Bres­son says in one piece of inter­view footage. “These are often things I can’t come up with on the set, so I believe it’s impor­tant to cre­ate a sol­id ground­work, a set of con­straints with­in which the film will take shape. Because I’m aware of these con­straints, I can ask my actors, non­pro­fes­sion­al actors, to sur­prise me. Unlim­it­ed sur­pris­es but with­in a lim­it­ed con­text.”

Those worlds will sound famil­iar to any­one who has read Notes sur le ciné­matographe (var­i­ous­ly trans­lat­ed as Notes on Cin­e­matog­ra­phy or Notes on the Cin­e­matog­ra­ph­er), Bres­son’s col­lec­tion of max­ims lay­ing out his view of his art. If obser­va­tions like “To set up a film is to bind per­sons to each oth­er and to objects by looks,” “Emp­ty the pond to get the fish,” and “Be sure of hav­ing used to the full all that is com­mu­ni­cat­ed by immo­bil­i­ty and silence” seem abstract on the page, Film­scalpel’s “Notes on Pick­pock­et illus­trates their enor­mous rel­e­vance to the effec­tive­ness of Bres­son’s work by weav­ing them direct­ly into scenes of one of his best-known works.

Film schol­ar David Bor­d­well exam­ines the same movie, but takes a much less apho­ris­tic and much more tech­ni­cal tack, in “Con­struc­tive Edit­ing in Robert Bresson’s Pick­pock­et,” which con­tex­tu­al­izes Bres­son’s tech­nique of con­struc­tive edit­ing, or build­ing a space while show­ing only small pieces of it at a time, as opposed to “ana­lyt­i­cal edit­ing” that first estab­lish­es the entire space and then moves with­in it. Just above, crit­ic and well-known Bres­son enthu­si­ast James Quant breaks down the much lat­er L’Ar­gent — or at least its use of reflec­tions and rep­e­ti­tion, just the R in the longer “L’Ar­gent, A to Z” video essay Quandt cre­at­ed for the Cri­te­ri­on Col­lec­tion’s release of the film.

The video essay­ist Kog­o­na­da, now a respect­ed film­mak­er in his own right, has so far put out two trib­utes to Bres­son: “Hands of Bres­son” just above, which con­cen­trates on the direc­tor’s use of those body parts, and “Once There Was Every­thing,” about the great cin­e­mat­ic effect to which he put doors all through­out his career. “Why should­n’t I put ten times more doors in my films if I feel like it?” the essay quotes him as say­ing. But then, the true fan knows that Bres­son could hard­ly have coun­te­nanced using even one more door than absolute­ly nec­es­sary — or one more of any­thing else, for that mat­ter.

In Bres­son’s world, to put it in dras­ti­cal­ly reduced terms, less is more: Julian Palmer’s short video essay above even takes that phrase as its title. Bres­son’s work has many virtues, few as name­able as their sim­plic­i­ty, but for the man him­self it always had to be just the right kind of sim­plic­i­ty. In Notes sur le ciné­matographe he iden­ti­fies two types: “The bad: sim­plic­i­ty as start­ing-point, sought too soon. The good: sim­plic­i­ty as end-prod­uct, rec­om­pense for years of effort.” Or, as he he writes else­where, “It is with some­thing clean and pre­cise that you will force the atten­tion of inat­ten­tive eyes and ears.” A cin­e­ma that has for­got­ten these lessons of Bres­son’s — now there’s a tru­ly fright­en­ing propo­si­tion.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How Doors Open onto Philo­soph­i­cal Mys­ter­ies in Robert Bresson’s Films: A Short Video Essay by Kog­o­na­da

Andrei Tarkovsky Reveals His Favorite Film­mak­ers: Bres­son, Anto­nioni, Felli­ni, and Oth­ers

The Eyes of Hitch­cock: A Mes­mer­iz­ing Video Essay on the Expres­sive Pow­er of Eyes in Hitchcock’s Films

An Intro­duc­tion to Jean-Luc Godard’s Inno­v­a­tive Film­mak­ing Through Five Video Essays

The Sur­re­al Film­mak­ing of David Lynch Explained in 9 Video Essays

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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