Robert Bresson in conversation with Ronald Hayman

The following was first published in the Transatlantic Review No. 46/7, Summer 1973 (London). Transcribed for by Doug Cummings. Thanks to Jonathan Hourigan for additional assistance. This material is displayed for archival and informational purposes only and is not intended to infringe upon the ownership rights of the original owners. A failed best-effort attempt was made at contacting the original copyright holders (the journal is now defunct). Please notify us immediately in case of legal difficulties, and any offending material shall promptly be removed!

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 editing?

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 little girl.

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 non-professional actors?

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 eternity."

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 kills her?

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. end block

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