Interviewing Robert Bresson for Cahiers du cinema in 1960, Jacques Doniol-Valcroze and Jean-Luc Godard proposed that there is “a single, privileged theme that returns in all your films.” “What?” “Solitude” — which drew the great auteur’s agreement, but then a proviso, a warning to himself, that “it’s dangerous, because on screen solitude appears dry, cold. To communicate it has to be surrounded by a lot of tenderness and love.” That could be an ars poetica for all the arts, not just cinema — or rather, what Bresson preferred to call cinematography, film as a kind of writing — but it contains most of what you need to know about Bresson’s art, which is almost always referred to as restrained or austere, never as dry or cold. Yes, Bresson the interviewee can seem a cool customer, as when he explains (also in Cahiers du cinema, to a group that included François Truffaut, André Bazin, and others, in 1957) that he hardly associates with his fellow filmmakers for the simple reason that he can’t bear to see their films: “I sense the crimes they’re committing, and I feel it would make me complicit. […] There is invention in all films, but personally I can’t stand them.” Maybe he was saving up all his tenderness for his own films. Before starting to make films, Bresson had been a painter. Or rather, he remained one, since according to him, “It’s not possible to have been a painter and to no longer be one,” and though he admits he no longer paints, says he intends to do so in the future. Did he ever take up painting again, perhaps in the years between the completion of his last film, L‘Argent, in 1983, and his death sixteen years later? I don’t know, nor do I know what the paintings he did make in his early years (when he mingled with Surrealists like Max Ernst and Roland Penrose) are like; but whenever he talks about painting or compares it to film-making, I feel sure that (though in a 1974 interview he denied it) he must have admired Matisse, who once explained that that “the driving force that leads me throughout the execution of a portrait depends on the initial shock of contemplating a face.” This shocking intimacy with the human face is essential to Bresson’s art — “the almost imperceptible things that happen on a face, or in a look in someone’s eyes.” He likes to recount a remark that he attributes to Charlie Chaplin, that if Greta Garbo sees a fly while being filmed thinks to herself, “What if the fly lands on my nose,” the camera will record it. But he explains over and over again that he prefers not to work with professional actors because their theatrical art of expression comes between him and them like a mask. He repeats incessantly, as well, that “a film is not made of images, it’s made of relationships between images” — which parallels Matisse’s insistence, in his “Notes of a Painter,” on relationships between colors as his instrument of expression. Still, Bresson always insisted that “the ear is much more creative than the eye,” and he preferred to work as much as possible through sounds and their relations than through images or speech, so that finally, as he came to admit in 1969, “I feel much more like a musician than a painter.”

Robert Bresson’s Bresson on Bresson: Interviews 1943-1983, translated by Anna Moschovakis (2016) is published by New York Review Books and is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.

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Barry Schwabsky

Barry Schwabsky is art critic for The Nation and co-editor of international reviews for Artforum. His recent books include The Perpetual Guest: Art in the Unfinished Present (Verso,...