Notes on the Cinématographe - Theories of Robert Bresson - Part I

The Cinématographe is the name that Robert Bresson gave to his work, by opposition to the Cinema, a photographed theater. It was his way in explaining the dependence of film to theater, first with the use of actors, then by their replacement with models from A Man Escaped until his final film L'Argent in 1983.

The Camera, the only possible point of view
In Bresson's work, the script is the moment where it tells to the character you are this and here are your motivations. But the shooting, then, confronts the literal script with the choice of each frame.  "There is only one location in space, in time that a thing needs to be watched." (Robert Bresson, Notes sur le Cinématographe). This is the most frequent variable that we can deduct from the script with the adaptation. The choice of the point of view is confronted with the "use" of the models, the looks, the moves, and the gestures. Most importantly, this is the unexpected angle, just like when Pierre-Auguste Renoir painted flowers he often choose the angle where he didn't touched the bouquet.

Automatism and the surprise
For Bresson, the surprise comes from the automatism, the repetition of takes for the models is the moment when they "leave" their body, their manners, and their personalities to catch the little spark of absence that creates the unexpected.
In that spirit, it is easy to notice that every model is asked to dictates his/her lines in a mechanical way. A lot like a whisper to himself the character always talks like he is narrating the story and detached from the events pictured on the screen.
It is also quite clear that Bresson's mise en scène doesn't impose a hierarchy of the things that are apparent in every frame. Everything that is filmed is on the same level.

Editing: the chronology of the frames
For Bresson editing is probably the part of his work that made him the most miserable. He had to choose the order, the importance of each frame and in his philosophy it was more a work of flattening of the images and a fragmentation of the story. The idea of leveling each image was to diminish the importance of their strength and beauty.
With the tight films like L'argent or Au hasard Balthazar the succession of plans impose a rhythm and suppresses contemplative moments and establishes a maze-like narrative with lots of inserts and their repetition. They evoke an imminent meaning instead of a purposeful use of those frames.
Part II Later this week.

Are you a fan of Bresson's work? How do you perceive his movies? Do you think his influence is still palpable in contemporary Cinema other than the Dardenne's?

Further readings
- Philippe Arnaud, Robert Bresson, La Petite bibliothèque des Cahiers du Cinéma, 1986.
- Robert Bresson, Notes sur le Cinématographe.


  1. Fascinating post. I must read those writings you cited.

    Bresson's style doesn't always click with me, but it certainly is a unique approach that when it works is really something spiritual and magical.

    I think strong elements of his influence can also be seen today in the films of Bruno Dumont, Eugene Green, and Claire Denis.

    1. Thank You Bonjour Tristesse! I deeply recommend those. However, I'm not sure if they are available in English...

      Ditto for me with his style and his films. I still need to watch a bunch of his... But, I'm still pretty hooked up on A Man Escaped that I loved.

      I'll have to watch some Dumont and Green. I saw Denis' 35 Rums and I quite liked it.


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