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Robert Bresson and the film's vigilance

Bresson's realism is about reorganizing our usual ways of seeing things – about finding a cinematic space in which what is usually beyond our grasp can breathe.



Asked if he thinks people understand what he's making, French filmmaker Robert Bresson replies: "I want you to feel a movie before you think it." For Bresson, who often based his films on books by Dostoevsky, tell stories or explain human behavior central. Rather, it was to sharpen our attention and sensitivity that only the film could do.

It has become relevant to write some words about this filmmaker – although "current" is a strange description to use in the same sentence as Bresson. He is a type of filmmaker who at this time feels eternal or never relevant. There is a new book about Bresson, Bresson on Bresson: Interviews, 1943 – 1983 (2016), and a new release of Bresson's own Notes on the Cinematograph (2016; first published in French as Notes on the Cinematograph in 1975). The former is a collection of interviews, comments, notes and articles from Bresson, while the latter is a collection of aphorisms by Bresson himself – a small book that some movie lovers have in their back pockets at all times of the day.

Nothing has changed since the previous edition, except for the size of the book, and it contains the previously written foreword by JMG Le Clézio, in which he writes, among other things, that Bresson's words and questions are steps in the search for "the discovery of a new language". The New York Review of Books has published this issue, and has also created a playlist on YouTube with three interviews (see link at the end).

What is it that we meet with this filmmaker that is worth our attention?

Taking a look at things instead of trying to explain them was also important for filmmakers like Chris Marker and Alain Resnais.

To stay awake. For many, Bresson stands as one of the most important in the film's form history, an almost untouchable form that sought its own path for the film as language, art or, more precisely: as composition. For Bresson, film is first and foremost a way to reorganizing the world on. It is a form of tuning our eyes and ears in a new way so that we can approach a fresh sensitivity to things as they are in their phenomenal mystery. Movies show not just people and things, but new connections. The camera does not belong to a wandering eye, Bresson said, but "a comprehensive vision."

Bresson is usually referred to as a dedicated Catholic, a man who survived 18 months in a German prison camp during World War II, and a self-taught, ascetic and esoteric stylist. Just as his films radiate an inexplicable aura, a mystery rests around the man himself. But rather than cultivating Bresson as an indisputable, flawless and almost supernatural genius, as some tend to do, it is probably more to see him as a human being who tried to look at it with a wary attention.

To the extent that Bresson can be seen as part of a "wave" or trend, we may find this in post-French and Italian filmmaking: to glance at things instead of trying to explain them. This was also important for filmmakers like Chris Marker and Alain Resnais: to watch over the ambiguity of a reality that constantly escapes our rationality and explanatory power. By combining a marvelous sensibility, a critical intelligence, and a cinematic optics that studied phenomena in their own way, they were more interested in keeping us awake than handing over monotony to the world – which war propaganda had so eagerly marked throughout the 1930s and 1940s – the number.

Bresson was to become a sentimental figure for French new wave directors in the late 1950s, who followed Orson Welles's dictum: The camera should be like eyes inside a poet's head. But it should also, they would add, inspired by two of their other important mentors, Jean Renoir and Roberto Rossellini, be an eye beyond the individual and the imagination – an eye that considers a common world the way it is. er without necessarily grabbing it. Verden has a poetry and a cruelty that we can listen to.

Simplification. Bresson's films, in line with such post-war sensibility (with forerunners in Renoir and Rossellini), are characterized by a kind of pious silence in the encounter with reality. The dialogue in his films is often as tight as Bresson himself shows in interviews and aphorisms, with a clear reluctance to try to explain what is implied. The words know that they are not saying anything true, that at best they are just an indiscriminate simplification of what is.

Bresson's movies are just known for being simplistic. The film's frame narratives, structure, style and characters in the picture try to be less intricate than in many other films. Bresson preferred to name the actors or characters for "models": They should be more than playing. Film critic Raymond Durgnat once pointed out, perhaps with Bresson ideals in mind: For an actor in a movie, imagine; the camera will capture the expression of the thought.

For Bresson, film is first and foremost a way to reorganizing the world on.

For Bresson, film is an art form that is far removed from the theater's dramatic gestures. Film is not a synthesis of other arts, but a way of organizing it. In Susan Sontag's words, Bresson's films are "anti-dramatic" and disillusioned expressions of "inner drama" and "inner style" (a moral conception of life). The conscious "simplification" seeks to formalize – rather than attenuate or reduce – encounters with something ambiguous, fleeting, nameless and cross-border.

Au Hasard Balthazar

Characteristic of Bresson's films is also, in keeping with this piety, that they show us effects before causes. In one of the interviews linked to earlier, which originated from 1966 and which relates to the masterpiece Au Hasard Balthazar which came the same year, he says: "We must leave the mystery. Life is mysterious and we should see it on the canvas. The consequences of things must always be shown before their causes, as in real life. We are unsuspecting about the causes of most of the events we witness. We see the consequences, and only later do we discover the cause. ”

The movie's incentives. When Bresson shows, it's for that spur to sense and think relationships and new relationships, not to claim, declaim, capture something truly in one track. As he says in the same interview: "Ideally, nothing should be shown, but it's impossible." That's because of such principled realism, film critic André Bazin set Bresson among the greatest.

"Realism" must here be understood as a manifestation of absence, of something hidden, something we cannot grasp and hold; Realism, in this sense, is not to mimic reality as it seems, but to let the expression give a germ of the knowledge or sense of an unrepresentative life movement. Realism is about recognition, not about the visible as such. The resulting postulate (from Notes on the Cinematograph): "No absolute value in the pictures." It is in our meeting with us that the pictures will have their real meaning. Bresson's realism, to the extent that it is a good concept, therefore consists in reorganizing our habitual ways of seeing and finding a cinematic space in which what is usually beyond our comprehension can breathe again.

That's why Bresson set spontantitet high, as he clearly states in one of his recent interviews (also found on the New York Review of Books playlist). The films are characterized by a very studied, precise composition, with camera runs on rails and people staring down at the chalk marks that mark where they should go at all times. But as Bresson writes in Notes on the Cinematograph: "A system doesn't regulate everything. It's a bait for something. ”For Bresson, film was a language that could give us a taste of some of the unconscious and inexplicable in our experience.

See the playlist HERE.
Teaches film studies at NTNU Email

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