Robert Bresson is a filmmaker apart. Or, so his friend Jean Cocteau once quipped about him, and this remark has summed up the general critical response to Bresson’s filmography for decades. His work is inscrutable, seemingly without other film referents. And a mythology has built up around him – not completely without merit.
However, over the past ten years, film researchers like Colin Burnett and Brian Price have taken another look at Bresson’s early career. They’ve found that Bresson’s relationships with avant-garde artists and filmmakers during the 1930s and 1940s were actually more formative for his film practice than was previously suspected.
In my own recent re-reading of Bresson’s treatise on filmmaking, Notes on the Cinematograph, I also noticed several statements that seemed like they could’ve been written by a surrealist. For example, when he refers to cinematography as “a method of discovery,” and follows up with a footnote that it “does so because a mechanism gives rise to the unknown, and not because one has found this unknown in advance.”
So, in this article I look at some surrealist affinities within Bresson’s approach to filmmaking. Not because Bresson was ever a surrealist – he wasn’t – or because the surrealists ever claimed him – they haven’t and might even scoff at this association – but because I noticed similarities and wanted to spend some time exploring them.
Process Over Style
Although never a surrealist himself, in the 1930s Bresson was friends with and collaborated with several people who ran in surrealist circles. This included Max Ernst, Louis Aragon, Roland Penrose, and René Clair.
The surrealists were known as a polemical group, and it seems unlikely that they had any friends or associates that they didn’t exchange ideas with. Whether consciously or not, one core surrealist idea that seems to have seeped into Bresson’s approach to filmmaking is an emphasis on process over style. One of the remarks in Notes on the Cinematograph suggests provocatively, “Never decide anything in advance.”
Over the years, surrealists of different eras and different geographic regions have consistently been suspicious of aesthetic style because it prioritizes the finished product and aggrandizes the artist. Multiple surrealists from 1920s Paris to 1990s Prague have asserted that surrealism is not art, not an aesthetic style. Instead they refer to it as a methodology, a creative life practice.
The 50mm Lens
For Bresson, his focus on process is articulated through his approach to the cinematic image. He is famous for always using a 50 millimeter lens, saying that, “To be constantly changing lenses in photographing is like constantly changing one’s glasses.” The 50 millimeter lens is the normal lens, the one thought to most closely approximate how the human eye sees. It doesn’t call attention to itself. In always using this lens, Bresson “flattens” a film’s point of view and frees himself from what he calls “postcardism,” which he considers a forced, superficial aestheticism.
He sometimes commented that his crews found his film shoots boring, because he didn’t include stylistic flourishes as part of his filmmaking process.
Actors as Models
One of the more controversial aspects of Bresson’s process is his approach to film performance. He would refer to his performers as “models” – not actors – rejecting performance skill in favor of a perceived authenticity from non-professional actors.
In Notes on the Cinematograph, he muses, “Model. You will pin down his image intact, not deformed by his intelligence, nor by yours.”
In reading Bresson’s ruminations about his “models” and the failings of professional actors in the medium of cinema, I couldn’t help but draw comparisons to how contemporary surrealist director Jan Švankmajer approaches his actors. Though Švankmajer does work with professionals, he views directing live actors the same as creating puppet performances, and he frequently remarks that objects have the same status as people in his films.
We feel perhaps a similar approach in Au Hasard Balthazar (1966), where the donkey has as much status as any of the humans.
Moreover, Bresson subjected his actors to multiple, repetitive takes in an attempt to strip psychology out of their performances and instead cultivate a kind of more automatic movement that reveals interiority. He writes, “Nine-tenths of our movements obey habit and automatism. It is anti-nature to subordinate them to will and to thought.” Like the surrealists, repetition and automatism are methods for moving beyond conscious thought to discover inner truth.
And discovery is really what this whole process adds up to. Through his models’ successive takes, Bresson is discovering something, something that he wants his audience to discover as well.
“What a film needs,” he says, “is this feeling of having discovered a person.”
Bresson’s Au hasard Balthazar was screened at the IU Cinema earlier this week as part of the Themester series, which is sponsored by the College of Arts and Sciences and IU Cinema and is supported through the Cinema’s Creative Collaborations program.
Laura Ivins loves stop motion, home movies, imperfect films, nature hikes, and Stephen Crane’s poetry. She has a PhD from Indiana University and an MFA from Boston University. In addition to watching and writing about movies, sometimes she also makes them.