Robert Bresson was not the first director to write about film. Before him there were the theories of Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov, the criticism of the French New Wave, and countless memoirs and guidebooks. But Notes on the Cinematograph, first published in France in 1975, might be the greatest book about film ever written, as well as the hardest to describe — the latter, in fact, might explain the former. Because it is equally simple and confounding, Bresson’s slim volume of aphoristic abstractions, which is being reissued by New York Review Books along with a companion volume of interviews, has served as a tool for aspiring auteurs attempting to navigate creative roadblocks in their work. The mystery contained in its pages has meant it has been continuously open to redefinition and rediscovery.
In a career that spanned over four decades, Bresson made only 13 films. His work is defined by a harshness of vision and concern for the turmoil of inner life, rigorously pursued through a series of restrictions that put his films outside both the mainstream and the underground: the use of non-actors (whom he called “models”), a distinct acting style that sought restraint (“being,” he says in Notes on the Cinematograph, instead of “seeming”), and a visual style characterized by the essential ordering of elements as opposed to a reproduction of reality. His narratives, while sparse, are engaged, as Tony Pipolo, critic and author of Robert Bresson. A Passion for Film, has noted, with the tension between predestination and free will.
Bresson was 74 years old when Notes on the Cinematograph was published, but the book had been in the works for many years. In interviews as early as 1966, following the release of Au Hasard Balthazar, he was already discussing the project that he was then calling a “technical book I never seem to find the time to finish.” The bulk of the text, which makes up the first section of the book, contains notes from the period between 1950 and 1958, ending around the time he made Pickpocket; the second, much shorter section contains notes from the period between 1960 and 1974, around the time he released another long-in-the-works project, Lancelot du Lac. As Keith Reader has noted in his book on Bresson, Notes on the Cinematograph exists in a French aphoristic tradition that dates back to François de La Rochefoucauld and Nicolas Chamfort, and draws comparisons to both Blaise Pascal and Michel de Montaigne, both of whom are quoted in the book. But the structure and austere presentation also mirrors Bresson’s own films, which were increasingly marked less by what they were than what they were not. As he was refining his process of stripping away, of developing a precise and economic visual precision that abandoned decoration, the notes led him on the path from one project to the next. “I work first, and think after,” he told an interviewer in 1959.
This was a process Bresson often linked to painting. Although none of his canvases have survived, the filmmaker often referred to himself as a painter before becoming a filmmaker, and continued to hold on to the title. “For me, when I write, I write the way I apply color,” he told Jean-Luc Godard in a 1966 interview. “I put a bit to the left, and a bit to the right, a bit in the middle; I stop, start again … and it’s only after something has been written and I’m no longer annihilated by the blank page that I can start to fill in the holes.” Notes on the Cinematograph has passages that directly reference painting — “Several takes of the same thing, like a painter who does several pictures or drawings of the same subject and, each fresh time, progresses toward rightness” — and artists such as Paul Cézanne, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, and Leonardo da Vinci. But, more significantly, the book feels much like his films, as if put together — ordered, to use a favorite word of Bresson’s — like a painting, with a structure in place and room for chance, or, rather, to fill in the holes. It doesn’t read as haphazardly as its title suggests. These aren’t published journals or notebooks, but ideas that he has been thinking about for many years and testing out in his work.
Bresson moves casually from first person to second person, between the stern and the personal in Notes on the Cinematograph, and the only questions, notably, appear on the final page. But this shouldn’t be misunderstood as a total belief in what is on the page as doctrine. Some of what Bresson writes reinforces ideas about his rejection of theatricality again and again, in a struggle to wring truth out of his words. He is never completely sure of what he is writing. There are contradictions to be found if you read closely — about the use of music, for example, or color, both of which Bresson utilized in different ways — and maxims that crumble through rhetorical zigzagging (“To your models: ‘Don’t think about what you’re saying, don’t think what you’re doing.’ And also: ‘Don’t think about what you say, don’t think about what you do’.”). But this was something Bresson was keenly aware of and would admit when pressed in interviews. The words in Notes on the Cinematograph are points of departure, a foundation to build upon, which gives them their strength (in this way, they share a connection with Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt’s Oblique Strategies deck of cards). This isn’t a manifesto or a unified theory, as many have described it. The book is to be wrestled with, but not followed. Bresson says as much in the book: “To forge for oneself iron laws, if only in order to obey or disobey them with difficulty.”
The new edition of Robert Bresson’s Notes on the Cinematograph is available from New York Review Books on November 15.