“Into Great Silence”: Robert Bresson’s Notes on the Cinematographer

This guest post comes from Mockingbird friend Michael Centore. This piece is a wonderful companion […]

Mockingbird / 3.9.15

This guest post comes from Mockingbird friend Michael Centore. This piece is a wonderful companion to his amazing Los Angeles Review of Books piece on the Evergetinos, which can be read here.


“The great difficulty for filmmakers is precisely not to show things,” Robert Bresson once declared during an interview for French television. “Ideally, nothing should be shown, but that’s impossible.” Reading Notes on the Cinematographer, his 1975 collection of memoranda, fragments, quotes, and aphorisms, one gathers he felt the same way about writing: that, in both media, a sense of reverence for the “secret laws” of life is best expressed in silence. While not technically a memoir, Notes on the Cinematographer nonetheless functions as such, in that it records in flitting glimpses the development of one man’s artistic and spiritual growth. The resulting self-portrait is of a contemplative who happened to use the tools of art to maintain what Romanian theologian Dumitru Staniloae has called “the vigilant tension of continuous self-transcendence.”

Heavy words, yes, but Bresson is an artist deserving of them. With the possible exception of Carl Theodor Dryer, perhaps nowhere in the history of cinema exists such a lean, economical body of work: thirteen films total, two of which were later dismissed as apprentice works, each suffused with the inimitable spirit of their creator. Bresson is not a director enamored with the illusory “magic” of film, rendering a world at safe remove, peopling it with characters that celebrate dramatic construction over living life. His artistic credo is neatly encapsulated on the second page of the text: “The point is not to direct someone, but to direct oneself.” For Bresson, the making of films is an ascetical practice, an arena in which to divest his will and the will of his actors—often nonprofessional, famously referred to as “models” so as to strike, even nominally, any inclinations toward dramaturgy—to maximize moments of wordless communication. “Between them and me,” he writes, “telepathic exchanges, divination.” The observation is not that of an auteur imprinting himself upon his cast, fragmenting his psyche and doling it out to various ciphers. Rather, it is that of a man seeking that space beyond art, or perhaps before it, where all is “one single mystery of persons and objects.” Here filmmaking becomes a co-creative process of “them letting you act in them, and you letting them act in you”; director and model share one life, equalized in “all that is communicated by immobility and silence.”


The methodology of bringing oneself and one’s artistic charges to this place is Notes on the Cinematographer’s thoroughgoing concern. Known for having his models rehearse by repeating their lines over and over, Bresson aims to induce through “the omnipotence of rhythms” a state of stillness and tranquility immune to the trickeries of the intellect. Stripped to “his pure essence,” empty but for words he himself did not write, think, or will, the model confronts for us on camera the true state of his mental and spiritual impoverishment. Yet it is precisely this state that is most open to the animating principle of life itself: the force of the “eternal beneath the accidental” that cannot be crafted into being by the wiles of artistic technique. The model stops trying to say the line; the line begins to say itself, as filtered through the unconscious movements and modulations that are unique to him, imprinted on his soul alone. Thus when Bresson says, apropos his models, “I am creating you as you are,” he means to show his films as a series of purgative fires ridding impulses both documentarian and dramatic. It is not a facsimile of life he is after; nor is it art, life’s corrective twin. He wants to film the real life of the spirit, the life that occurs when the mind ceases its overweening thoughts about itself and descends into the heart.

This is filmmaking as a form of prayer, and Notes on the Cinematographer is in a very real sense a spiritual guidebook. Pascal’s Pensées is an oft-cited touchstone, but in the terse focus of its directives, as well as its concern with such virtues as discernment, watchfulness, and engagement with reality over the “intermediary work of the imagination,” Bresson’s writing shares much with such “practical mystics” as Evagrios the Solitary or Saint Mark the Ascetic—desert monks of the fourth and fifth centuries, respectively, who wrote instructively of their experience for others seeking an encounter with the divine mysteries. A self-described “Christian atheist,” Bresson’s vocabulary is rarely explicitly religious, though it is imbued with a deep feeling for life’s enigmatic and paradoxical qualities. Like many monastic texts, his was written as much to call things to remembrance for himself as for a general audience; its register is neither cathartic nor confessional, but clinical and exacting; at its most profound level, its focus is the purification, illumination, and perfection of the intellect that one might close the gap between intuition and action and thus “make visible what, without [him], might perhaps never have been seen.”

But Bresson is an artist, not an abbot, and it is through his work that his spiritual goals take flight. One might say he, like all of us, needs the physical to transcend the physical; only by tying “new relationships between persons and things which are, and as they are” can he perceive the inner lives of both, create conditions that allot them the greatest space, and communicate them through the cinematographic act. On this tack, two related quotations. The first—“Not beautiful images, not beautiful photography, but necessary images and photography”—finds a fitting addendum several pages later: “Your film’s beauty will not be in the images . . . but in the ineffable that they will disengage.” In Bresson’s artistic program, what is necessary is the ineffable. The filmmaker must be a diviner, centered in the moment of transfixing quietude that plunges him into the mystery of the reality that surrounds him.


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