Robert Bresson in conversation with Ronald Hayman
The following was first published in
the Transatlantic Review No. 46/7, Summer 1973 (London).
Transcribed for robert-bresson.com by Doug Cummings.
Thanks to Jonathan Hourigan for additional assistance.
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RB: What we see in the cinema is something like a bastard of the
theatre. But that doesn't mean it has no importance. It has. It
doesn't mean that it's nothing. It's something. Cinema could be an
art and I always question myself about how cinema could become an
art—not while I'm shooting but between each film. And one day I
thought I had to put down on paper what I felt. It happened about
the fourth or fifth film I did. Everything went intuitively, and
then afterwards I started to write notes on envelopes, on anything I
had. Afterwards I added to them. When you're working you must not
think of theory, but afterwards it's good if you consider your
methods. The more means you have at your disposal, the harder it is
to dominate your work. I think economy is a great quality in any
work—in writing too. But that came by itself. Without being a
theorist I wanted to judge why I would do such a thing in one way and
not in another, to analyse my way of working.
Very often I can't find money because I don't use stars and actors.
RH: Is economy a different problem when you're working in colour
instead of black and white?
The problem of unity is the same. You touch people's emotions
with unity of effect. You must start from the blank screen and start
from the silence. I like silence very much. When I read this little
sentence—"Silence was pleas'd"—in Milton's Paradise Lost, I
liked the idea of silence being pleased.
Another thing I was aware of was that nearly all gestures, all of
our ways of talking, are mechanical. It's true. You put your hand
like this. Look. There are two pages in Montaigne about the way our
hands go where we don't want them to go. He's a writer who isn't
really difficult. You can always read a page or two and find
something. Theatre consists of well controlled gestures and words.
Cinema must be something different—not controlled. It must be the
equivalent of life, like any art, but certainly not copied or
simulated. There must be little elements of life, of reality,
captured separately, little by little with the extraordinary machine
which is the camera. Then when you put them together in a certain
way, a sudden life comes out of it—cinematic life, which is not at
all like everyday life. Nor is it like the life of the theatre. The
life of the theatre is like life only because actors are alive. In
the cinema, when you photograph somebody, you kill him on film. It's
dead images. Projecting a film is projecting people killed. But
there is a certain way of doing it so that the images are transformed
by their contact together. Then life comes into it, like flowers
reviving in water.
You said in an interview once that the ear relates to what is
inside and the eye more to what is outside.
The ear is much more profound. You must feel the ear and the eye
together if you can because the ear gives something to the eye. When
you hear the whistle of the train it gives you the idea of the whole
station. The ear is inventive.
How much do you know before you start shooting about what you
want the relationships between the different parts of the film to be?
How much do your preconceptions change during shooting and during the
I am the opposite of a writer. To make a film you must do
everything yourself. To make an adaptation you must find in the book
what could be inside yourself, what corresponds with your own
observations. For the subject I've now been working on for many
months I took notes on pieces of paper and put them together and
waited, as I always do, till I thought the time had come to write the
script. But I'm less and less in a hurry. I let things come instead
of going to them. When I start writing the script I try much harder
than I used to to see and hear the things together. Sometimes I
write three or four lines—perhaps ten—of dialogue, which comes into
my head, just like that. Then with that I try to make a filmscript.
The dialogue is made inside my head and this dialogue, when I have
finished it, I take apart and try to rewrite it fifty times. I'm not
a writer but I want it to be mine.
Then I have to find a producer, which is very difficult for me
without actors. Then I have to choose my non-actors. Now I can find
money but not enough to make expensive films. For my early work I
couldn't find money at all. I started working with actors and I made
three or four or five films without being able to be free. I need a
special kind of people who don't exteriorise in fact. I want people
to be inside themselves. When we were shooting, I'd say to them,
"Talk as if you were talking to yourself, not to the others." But
they carried on as if they were on the stage. The French actor steps
outside of himself. Sometimes when they are performing in the
theatre it's all right—not from the head but from the heart. But
now I choose nearly all my actors through friends. They are not
people who come to me. Nadine Nortier, the Mouchette, was an
exception. I had another girl but at the last moment her parents did
not want her to act this kind of role. So I had to find another girl
three days before we started shooting, and my assistant found this
How often do surpises occur during shooting?
The less the actors know about the film, the more I like it. I
only ask them, "You are sitting here—look at that door." Then we
rehearse that ten times. Then I say, "When we are there, you say
this sentence. Say it as calmly as possible, as mechanically as
possible." In the action, you see, what this girl or this boy has
got inside takes place without their knowing it. They say it in a
way which is the right way. But French cinema actors are the same
actors who work in the theatre, and they've got the same way of
pushing words together.
I'm a painter and I can't stop being a painter. In the first film
I did, which I don't like at all—I can't bear to see it
anymore—they were all actors and actresses. In my first minute of
my first day I looked at them acting and I stopped them. I said,
"I'm leaving. There won't be a film." I was very surprised when
that happened, but I think I was expecting it, and everything I'm
writing and thinking now comes from that first minute. I realised
they meant to go on acting as if they were in the theatre. And
little by little everything I'm telling you now came to me, without my
wanting to be a theorist at all. And after the third film I said, "I
can't work with actors." Not because I don't like them or don't like
the theatre. But because it's wrong to confuse the methods of
theatre with the methods of the cinema.
How did you get from being a painter to directing your first film?
I had to stop painting. I was too nervous. Then I thought of the
cinema. But it's only now after so many years that I begin to think
in terms of cinema. When cinema re-started in Paris after the
Occupation there were not so many people in Paris. At first they
said no. It was very diffiult to be accepted. Then after Les
Dames du Bois de Boulogne I still went for five or six years
without being able to make a film. It's only in the last fifteen
years I've been more free.
Aren't non-actors equally liable to act when they're in front
of the camera?
With Claude Laydu sometimes I noticed he was controlling himself.
When I made The Trial of Joan of Arc I asked the girl I had
chosen not to think for one single moment that she was or could be
Joan of Arc, but just to remain herself. That's all. And to go from
here to there without thinking at all. In the other cinema they'd
say, "Do you think you could be Joan of Arc? You know the story.
Could you think you are going to be burned at the stake?"
Sometimes there is a very good expression on the face of my
actress and I see it for the first time during the editing. When I
used one or two young married women, the husbands told me, "I saw in
my wife something I've never seen before." I think the cinema can be
a means of advancing psychology, of giving something to it. I know
that if she doesn't act, if she does it mechanically, there will be
something very interesting that the camera takes. There are other
ways of trying to catch the truth while shooting. When directors ask
a girl to talk about her own life in any way she likes, then she
starts acting. But if you just tell the person to move and to talk
in a monotone, it doesn't become monotonous. It's like a pianist who
doesn't put emotion onto his piano but waits for the emotion to
come. But he waits with the most mechanical way of playing the
piano. Movement has the same effect on my performers. But when
critics come to see my films they think there is nothing there. They
are used to judging films by the talent of the actors. They see him
playing a policeman one week and a gangster the next. But the talent
hides the real nature of the man or the girl. It's like a screen
between you and the person.
In Au hasard Balthazar you arrived at a very touching
relationship between the animal and the human beings.
First of all I didn't want a very clever donkey. You can't tell a
donkey to look to the right or to the left. Then I put the images of
the donkey in a certain place in the film and the editing gives the
impression of the donkey's love for the girl. We did the death with
a drug. But I didn't know what would happen. The vet told me that
when you give an animal a pill you never know what's going to happen.
Perhaps he'll start galloping away or perhaps he'll go to sleep. I
was very anxious because the time was running out. But it all
happened as if by miracle. He just went to sleep very slowly, then
it looked as if he was dead. Then in five minutes he was up again.
But it's very difficult to work like that. Somebody like Kubrick has
a lot of money and everything he needs. He has only to watch the way
the actors act—everything else is done by other people.
When I was getting ready to shoot Balthazar I asked the
producer for a black donkey. The real donkey for me is the donkey of
my youth, all black with a white nose. But they had no black donkey.
Then two or three days before we started shooting, there was this
black donkey. Then on location the weather was very bad and I wanted
to go South, but before going South I had to shoot a scene where the
donkey got wet in the rain. The rain was an effect from a machine.
And the man in charge of him said, "Don't make him wet or he'll catch
cold." Then we went South and the donkey was red. They'd dyed him
like a woman's hair and in the light in the South the red showed.
And one of my men had to powder him with black powder every day.
How did you arrive at the idea for the film?
Some years ago I had the idea for the film and I wanted to write
it as soon as I'd finished shooting the film I was working on. The
first morning, nothing came, and I had to stop. I tried many times
to write it and I couldn't. I made a lot of notes and that's all.
But one day I said, "I'll have to write it or the film will never be
made." Then I wrote it down in two days. In the meantime I had the
two big ideas for the construction: for the donkey, as for a man, if
you see the time when he studies and then the time when he works,
then death approaching, then the mystical time before dying, then the
death, as for a human being. The other idea was to make him pass
through all the vices of humanity. Then it was easier for me to
write it down on paper.
How do you react when critics see symbolism in your work?
I don't like smbols but when they come to me I don't push them
away. At the end of Balthazar there is the thinking of Christ
about going to be crucified when he goes up to the mountains and then
comes back. The other element is Christ's suffering from humanity
and suffering for the vices of humanity. I didn't want it but many
people found it there and I didn't say no, of course. It's a bit
like the early Charlie Chaplin films. He dressed in black, like the
donkey, and he suffered on behalf of humanity.
What is you attitude to the Italian neorealists who used
They were very good but sometimes they took non-professional
actors and dubbed them with professional voices. Not always. But
each director has about ten scenarists. That I can't understand.
The kind of thing you imagine when you are alone is not the kind of
thing you imagine when you are ten. However good they are. It's not
exactly falsification but it's also not the real truth.
It's been said that your films "place the world in the light of
I wish I could. I don't know what to say about that. Perhaps
they mean I want to make films from a child's eye view. Of course
there is a conception of another life because I believe in it. At
least one day I believe, the next day I don't, but I believe anyway
that there's something more than just living on the earth.
And you believe in some sort of fatality?
Yes, that would be a sort of Jansenist conception. To say that
God is looking at us and saying "This one is good; this one isn't."
But there is the feeling that God is everywhere, and the longer I
live, the more I see that in nature, in the country. When I see a
tree I see that God exists. I try to catch and to convey the idea
that we have a soul and that the soul is in contact with God. That's
the first thing I want to get in my films—that we are living souls.
And that couldn't happen in the theatrical cinema. I feel certain
that the vocation of the cinema is the inside while the vocation of
the theatre is outside. The more talent professional actors have the
less likely they are to be real people for the cinema. It's as if
there were a screen between them and the camera. What I'm looking
for is the real agitation of the human which the camera can
catch—something that cannot be caught by a painter or a writer. But
acting prevents you from getting it because the actor's obligation to
his art is to be somebody else.
At the end of Mouchette where there are these two
playful attempts at what could be suicide before the third one, which
is fatal, do you see it as being chance—or something more—that
I wanted the ambiguity. What shocked me in the book is that
Bernanos made her die by wanting to put her head in the water as if
on her pillow in bed. I've never seen anyone committing suicide like
that—waiting for death in the water. But the funny thing is that
when I read the book I immediately knew how the film should end. The
first thing that I knew is that she should die by rolling downhill
into the water. It was an intuition, and I didn't hesitate for a
second. But I wanted her to make three attempts so that we know what
she wants before anything decisive happens. But it's a game. There
are many ways of committing suicide and Russian roulette is one.
Rolling downhill is a little girl's game which is her equivalent.
It's like what happened when she had the baby in her arms. I
didn't ask her to look like a mother or to think she was a mother.
She just took the baby and put its hand on her breast. Then the baby
takes its milk and her tears begin to fall. They were real, sincere
tears. I didn't think you arrive at the truth by means of the truth.
As in painting, which is a mechanical process. Writing too—you
write with words. One day the painter Degas was trying to write
poetry and he meets Mallarmé and says to him, "I was trying to write
a poem today, but I didn't have any ideas." Mallarmé said, "But you
don't write poems with ideas. You write poems with words." It's the
same with the cinema. You don't make a film with the theatre of life
but with images put together.
Your work can't consist entirely of intuition, though. There
must be some thinking in between.
It is terrible because when we shoot a film in France—it's not
the same in the United States where there is silence in the
studio—you have no idea of the noise. It's like a fairground. So
you have to concentrate. It's like writing. If you're not in a
certain state you can't write. So I try to create surprises for
myself and shoot scenes in new places with new people. I try to
improvise, not to be in habit of filming. In Four Nights of a
Dreamer I improvised the whole garden scene. There is something
else which I like and which I feel. In the love between the
students, she loved him because she never saw him. She loved the
idea of him. Even if he were very ugly or very nasty to her it would
make no difference. It's not in Dostoevsky, but even in an
adaptation you can put a lot of yourself, especially with Dostoevsky
who goes so deeply into emotions.
What do you think of Tolstoy?
In comparison I find him very dry. He works much more from the
outside than from the inside. With Dostoevsky you feel "I'm sure you
don't make mistakes about human beings." That's what I'm looking
for—to remain on the inside.
Once you said, "Plastically one must sculpt the idea into the
face by means of light an shade."
Of course the way a face is lit can change things. I'm very
careful about that. And if a face is lit in different ways it is not
the same person. Ten photographs of somebody can be ten different
people. Colour of course now is another factor. As in painting the
colour you choose makes a statement, even though the average director
just shoots to have the film in colour without being aware of the
effect that the dominant colours are having on the substance of the
film. I had great difficulty in making Four Nights of a Dreamer
at night in Paris. Every time I changed my angle I had to re-light
everything in front of the camera. And to wait. The great
difficulty is to wait, because you can lose your enthusiasm.
But you'd never want to go back to black and white?
No. In a film shot almost entirely at night the difficulty is to
have certain colours to be between the blue and the green and the
brown. Daylight is blue, even on a dull day. In Une femme
douce, when you see the traffic through the window, the lamps you
set to have more light on the faces are as blue as possible to match
the blue of outside.
The whole tendency in cinema-going today is that people go to see
as much as they can. Horrid things—anything. A car, a girl in the
street. To have as many things as possible in front of your eyes.
But there is no spiritual content and no pleasure in seeing something
well written or well composed.
When I was making Diary of a Country Priest I wanted to do
it in the North where Bernanos lived. It was the same with A Man
Escaped. I wanted to make it on the same spot where he wrote his
account. With reality as your material you are free to do anything.
It's terrible to take a man in a condemned cell as a subject but the
Minister of Justice gave me access to a prison.