“One should not use the camera as if it were a broom.”
—Robert Bresson, Notes On The Cinematograph
Notes On The Cinematograph, a collection of epigrams and incomplete sentences by the iconoclastic French filmmaker Robert Bresson, is the shortest of the essential film books, though it isn’t meant to be breezed through. Instead, this small and curious volume, in which every page is about two-thirds white space, exists to be consulted; its closest analogue is Oblique Strategies, the card deck of randomized creative instructions created by musician-producer Brian Eno and artist Peter Schmidt. An original and singular figure, Bresson sought a truer form of narrative film, in the process eliminating everything he considered theatrical or extraneous. His many masterpieces (including Au Hasard Balthazar, Diary Of A Country Priest, A Man Escaped, and L’Argent) are animated by a vision of cinema concerned with absolute fundamentals of composition, editing, and sound, and their ability to emote frailty, inner conflict, and grace. He didn’t even like to call it cinema, preferring the older “cinematograph.”
Bresson’s evolution from a visual artist dabbling in movies into a critical cause célèbre and then a semi-reluctant icon of the arthouse is partly captured in Bresson On Bresson: Interviews, 1943-1983, a new hardcover edited by his widow, Mylène Bresson, and translated by the poet Anna Moschovakis. Its subtitle isn’t strictly accurate; the dates correspond to the start and end of Bresson’s run as a director of feature films, but do not correspond to the material collected in the book. Nor are all of the texts interviews, since Bresson On Bresson also includes excerpts from press kits, transcripts of TV profiles, and articles written by the director. What it presents is a chronological run-through of his career, beginning with his 1934 short Public Affairs (discussed in a 1987, soon after the film’s rediscovery) and covering all 13 of his features as well as Notes On The Cinematograph. Perhaps inevitably, it doubles as a history of the French film press, which played the most important role in developing the philosophical language of film criticism.
Bresson’s films fascinated writers of every generation and political stripe, from the notorious collaborationist Occupation-era newspaper Je Suis Partout and the seminal postwar weekly L’Écran Français to the initially conservative upstarts of the French New Wave and their eventual left-wing successors at Cahiers Du Cinéma. But though it’s a treat to read this unique filmmaker in conversation with some of his most storied admirers (including New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard and important but under-translated critics like Jean Douchet and Serge Daney), there is a sameness to the questions and answers. Bresson was notorious for often insisting on editing his interviews. He preferred generalities. (One quirk of Notes On The Cinematograph is that all other directors are referred to as “X.”) As a result, there’s much that is left unaddressed in Bresson On Bresson, like his sense of humor (his earliest film work was in comedy) or his erotic and obsessive undercurrents, most overt in the often-neglected Les Dames Du Bois De Boulogne (1945) and A Gentle Woman (1969).
In addition to the new Bresson On Bresson, New York Review Books has also republished Notes On The Cinematograph. This is the same translation that’s been available in English for 30 years under the title Notes On The Cinematographer, with the same introduction by J.M.G. Le Clézio. But despite the corrected title, this new edition has to be considered slightly inferior to the once ubiquitous pocket-sized one published by Green Integer, simply on account of the size: It has the same bookshelf-ready dimensions as NYRB’s other paperbacks. That might sound like a minor nitpick, but Notes On The Cinematograph is as much an item as it is a text; it begs to be carried, flipped through, or kept on top of piles of larger books.
It is barely organized, with occasional headings that give only a fleeting illusion of order to the marginalia that the director accumulated over several decades. There are single-sentence manifestoes (“What is for the eye must not duplicate what is for the ear,” “novelty is not originality or modernity,” “the noises must become music,” etc.), jotted notes about artists and composers (“Debussy himself used to play with the piano’s lid down”), vague descriptions of misremembered films, statements so cryptic that only Bresson himself could decipher them, and the occasional deep thought along the lines of, “The soundtrack invented silence.” Perhaps it’s its incompleteness that can make Notes such a welcome creative tool, both for people interested in making art and for those who just enjoy talking or thinking about it.
Returning to the same themes again and again—as he did in his remarkably consistent body of work and in the interviews included in Bresson On Bresson—Bresson ended up creating a little book of challenges. It has an element of madness, sometimes suggesting the bullet-pointed ravings of a conspiracy nut in its coded language, its fragmentary grammar, its repetition. Picked at random, a page of his notes to himself implores to rethink, prune, intensify, and do the impossible, including the immortal, all-caps, “FORGET YOU ARE MAKING A FILM.”