Robert Bresson

Robert Bresson (French: [ʁɔbɛʁ bʁɛsɔ̃]; 25 September 1901 – 18 December 1999)[1] was a French film director. Known for his ascetic approach, Bresson contributed notably to the art of cinema; his non-professional actors, ellipses, and sparse use of scoring have led his works to be regarded as preeminent examples of minimalist film. Much of his work is known for being tragic in story and nature.

Robert Bresson
Robert Bresson.png
Bresson c. 1960
Born(1901-09-25)25 September 1901
Died18 December 1999(1999-12-18) (aged 98)
Paris, France
OccupationFilm director, screenwriter
Years active1933–1983
Spouse(s)Leidia van der Zee (m.1926)
Marie-Madeleine van der Mersch

Bresson is among the most highly regarded filmmakers of all time. He has the highest number (seven) of films in the Top 250 list of greatest films ever made, published by Sight and Sound in 2012.[2][3][4] His works A Man Escaped (1956),[5] Pickpocket (1959)[6] and Au Hasard Balthazar (1966)[7] were ranked among the 100 greatest films ever made in the 2012 Sight & Sound critics' poll. Other films of his, such as Mouchette (1967) and L'Argent (1983), also received many votes.[8] Jean-Luc Godard once wrote, "He is the French cinema, as Dostoevsky is the Russian novel and Mozart is German music."[9]

Life and careerEdit

Bresson was born at Bromont-Lamothe, Puy-de-Dôme, the son of Marie-Élisabeth (née Clausels) and Léon Bresson.[10] Little is known of his early life. He was educated at Lycée Lakanal in Sceaux, Hauts-de-Seine, close to Paris, and turned to painting after graduating.[11] Three formative influences in his early life seem to have a mark on his films: Catholicism, art and his experiences as a prisoner of war. Robert Bresson lived in Paris, France, in the Île Saint-Louis.

Initially also a photographer, Bresson made his first short film, Les affaires publiques (Public Affairs) in 1934. During World War II, he spent over a year in a prisoner-of-war camp−an experience which informs Un condamné à mort s'est échappé ou Le vent souffle où il veut (A Man Escaped). In a career that spanned fifty years, Bresson made only 13 feature-length films. This reflects his painstaking approach to the filmmaking process and his non-commercial preoccupations. Difficulty finding funding for his projects was also a factor.

Although many writers claim that Bresson described himself as a "Christian atheist",[12][13] no source ever confirmed this assertion, neither are the circumstances clear under which Bresson would have said it. On the contrary, in an interview in 1973 he said,

There is the feeling that God is everywhere, and the more 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.[14]

Furthermore, in a 1983 interview for TSR's Spécial Cinéma, Bresson declared to have been interested in making a film based on the Book of Genesis, although he believed such a production would be too costly and time-consuming.[15]

Bresson was sometimes accused of an "ivory tower existence".[16] Critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, an admirer of Bresson's work, argued that the filmmaker was "a mysterious, aloof figure", and wrote that on the set of Four Nights of a Dreamer (1971) the director "seemed more isolated from his crew than any other filmmaker I've seen at work; his widow and onetime assistant director, Mylene van der Mersch, often conveyed his instructions."[17]


Bresson died on a Saturday in December 1999, at his home in Droue-sur-Drouette southwest of Paris. He was 98. He made his last film in 1983 and had been unwell for some time.[18]


Feature filmsEdit

As a Director

Year Film Notes
1943 Angels of Sin Les Anges du péché
1945 The Ladies of the Bois de Boulogne Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne
1951 Diary of a Country Priest Journal d'un curé de campagne
1956 A Man Escaped Un condamné à mort s'est échappé ou Le vent souffle où il veut
(literally, "a condemned man escapes, or, the wind blows where it will")
1959 Pickpocket
1962 The Trial of Joan of Arc Procès de Jeanne d'Arc
1966 Au Hasard Balthazar "Balthazar, at random"
1967 Mouchette
1969 A Gentle Woman Une femme douce
1971 Four Nights of a Dreamer Quatre nuits d'un rêveur
1974 Lancelot du Lac Lancelot of the Lake
1977 The Devil Probably Le Diable probablement
1983 L'Argent "money"

Short filmsEdit


  • Notes sur le Cinématographe (1975)—translated as Notes on Cinematography, Notes on the Cinematographer and Notes on the Cinematograph in different English editions.
  • Bresson on Bresson: Interviews, 1943-1983 (2016)—translated from the French by Anna Moschovakis, edited by Mylène Bresson, preface by Pascal Mérigeau.

Themes and styleEdit

Bresson's early artistic focus was to separate the language of cinema from that of the theater, which often relies heavily upon the actor's performance to drive the work. Film scholar Tony Pipolo writes that "Bresson opposed not just professional actors, but acting itself,"[19] preferring to think of his actors as 'models'. In Notes sur le cinématographe, a collection of aphorisms written by Bresson, the director succinctly defines the difference between the two:

HUMAN MODELS: movement from the exterior to the interior. [...] ACTORS: movement from the interior to the exterior.[20]

Bresson further elaborates on his disdain for acting in later passages of the book, wherein he appropriates a remark Chateaubriand had made about 19th century poets and applies it to professional actors (that is, "what they lack is not naturalness, but Nature.") For Bresson, "to think it's more natural for a movement to be made or a phrase to be said like this than like that" is "absurd", and "nothing rings more false in film [...] than the overstudied sentiments" of theater.[20]

With his 'model' technique, Bresson's actors were required to repeat multiple takes of each scene until all semblances of 'performance' were stripped away, leaving a stark effect that registers as both subtle and raw. This, as well as Bresson's restraint in musical scoring, would have a significant influence on minimalist cinema. In the academic journal CrossCurrents, Shmuel Ben-gad writes:[21]

There is a credibility in Bresson's models: They are like people we meet in life, more or less opaque creatures who speak, move, and gesture [...] Acting, on the other hand, no matter how naturalistic, actively deforms or invents by putting an overlay or filter over the person, presenting a simplification of a human being and not allowing the camera to capture the actor's human depths. Thus what Bresson sees as the essence of filmic art, the achievement of the creative transformation involved in all art through the interplay of images of real things, is destroyed by the artifice of acting. For Bresson, then, acting is, like mood music and expressive camera work, just one more way of deforming reality or inventing that has to be avoided.

Film critic Roger Ebert wrote that Bresson's directorial style resulted in films "of great passion: Because the actors didn't act out the emotions, the audience could internalize them."[22]

Some feel that Bresson's Catholic upbringing and belief system lie behind the thematic structures of most of his films.[23] Recurring themes under this interpretation include salvation, redemption, defining and revealing the human soul, and metaphysical transcendence of a limiting and materialistic world. An example is A Man Escaped (1956), where a seemingly simple plot of a prisoner of war's escape can be read as a metaphor for the mysterious process of salvation.

Bresson's films can also be understood as critiques of French society and the wider world, with each revealing the director's sympathetic, if unsentimental, view of its victims. That the main characters of Bresson's most contemporary films, The Devil, Probably (1977) and L'Argent (1983), reach similarly unsettling conclusions about life indicates to some the director's feelings towards the culpability of modern society in the dissolution of individuals. Indeed, of an earlier protagonist he said, "Mouchette offers evidence of misery and cruelty. She is found everywhere: wars, concentration camps, tortures, assassinations."[24] Film historian Mark Cousins argues that "[i]f Bergman and Fellini filmed life as if it was a theatre and a circus, respectively, Bresson's microcosm was that of a prison", describing Bresson's characters as "psychologically imprisoned".[25]

Bresson published Notes sur le cinématographe (also published in English translation as Notes on the Cinematographer) in 1975, in which he argues for a unique sense of the term "cinematography". For him, cinematography is the higher function of cinema. While a movie is in essence "only" filmed theatre, cinematography is an attempt to create a new language of moving images and sounds.


Bresson is often referred to as a patron saint of cinema, not only for the strong Catholic themes found throughout his oeuvre, but also for his notable contributions to the art of film. His style can be detected through his use of sound, associating selected sounds with images or characters; paring dramatic form to its essentials by the spare use of music; and through his infamous 'actor-model' methods of directing his almost exclusively non-professional actors. Mark Cousins writes:[25]

So complete was Bresson’s rejection of cinema norms that he has a tendency to fall outside film history. However, his uncompromising stance has been extremely influential in some quarters.

Bresson's book Notes on the Cinematographer (1975) is one of the most respected books on film theory and criticism. His theories about film greatly influenced other filmmakers, particularly the French New Wave directors.

French cinemaEdit

Opposing the established pre-war French cinema (known as Tradition de la Qualité ["tradition of quality"]) by offering his own personal responses to the question "what is cinema?",[26] and by formulating his ascetic style, Bresson gained a high reputation with the founders of the French New Wave. He is often listed (along with Alexandre Astruc and André Bazin) as one of the main figures who influenced them. New Wave pioneers praised Bresson and posited him as a prototype for or precursor to the movement. However, Bresson was neither as overtly experimental nor as outwardly political as the New Wave filmmakers, and his religious views (Catholicism and Jansenism) were not attractive to most of the filmmakers associated with the movement.[26]

In his development of auteur theory, François Truffaut lists Bresson among the few directors to whom the term "auteur" can genuinely be applied, and later names him as one of the only examples of directors who could approach even the so-called "unfilmable" scenes, using the film narrative at its disposal.[citation needed] Jean-Luc Godard also looked Bresson with high admiration ("Robert Bresson is French cinema, as Dostoevsky is the Russian novel and Mozart is the German music."[27]) Screenwriter and director Alain Cavalier describes Bresson's role as pivotal not only in the New Wave movement, but for French cinema in general, writing, "In French cinema you have a father and a mother: the father is Bresson and the mother is Renoir, with Bresson representing the strictness of the law and Renoir warmth and generosity. All the better French cinema has and will have to connect to Bresson in some way."[3]


Bresson has also influenced a number of other filmmakers, including Andrei Tarkovsky, Chantal Akerman, Jim Jarmusch, Michael Haneke, Olivier Assayas, the Dardenne brothers, Aki Kaurismäki, and Paul Schrader, whose book Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer includes a detailed critical analysis. Andrei Tarkovsky[28] held Bresson in very high regard, noting he and Ingmar Bergman as his two favourite filmmakers, stating "I am only interested in the views of two people: one is called Bresson and one called Bergman".[29] In his book Sculpting in Time, Tarkovsky describes Bresson as "perhaps the only artist in cinema, who achieved the perfect fusion of the finished work with a concept theoretically formulated beforehand."[27]

Awards and nominationsEdit

Cannes Film FestivalEdit

Year Category Nominated work Result Ref.
1957 Palme d'Or A Man Escaped Nominated [30]
Best Director Won
1962 Palme d'Or The Trial of Joan of Arc Nominated
Jury Special Prize Won
OCIC Award Nominated
1967 Palme d'Or Mouchette Nominated
OCIC Award Won
Special Distinction Won
1974 FIPRESCI Prize Lancelot du Lac Nominated
1983 Palme d'Or L'Argent Nominated
Best Director Won

Berlin Film FestivalEdit

Year Category Nominated work Result Ref.
1960 Golden Bear Pickpocket Nominated [31]
1971 Four Nights of a Dreamer Nominated
OCIC Award Won
1977 Golden Bear The Devil Probably Nominated
Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize Won
OCIC Award Won
Interfilm Award Won

Venice Film FestivalEdit

Year Category Nominated work Result Ref.
1951 Golden Lion Diary of a Country Priest Nominated [32]
OCIC Award Won
International Award Won
Italian Film Critics Award Won
1966 Golden Lion Au Hasard Balthazar Nominated
OCIC Award Won
San Giorgio Prize Won
New Cinema Award Won
Jury Homage Won
Cineforum 66 Award Won
1967 Pasinetti Award Mouchette Won
1989 Career Golden Lion Award N/A Won

Works on BressonEdit

  • Robert Bresson: A Passion for Film by Tony Pipolo (Oxford University Press; 407 pages; 2010) pays particular attention to psychosexual aspects of the French filmmaker's 13 features, from Les Anges du péché (1943) to L'Argent (1983).
  • La politique des auteurs, edited by André Bazin.
  • Robert Bresson (Cinematheque Ontario Monographs, No. 2), edited by James Quandt
  • Transcendental Style in Film: Bresson, Ozu, Dreyer by Paul Schrader
  • Robert Bresson: A Spiritual Style in Film, by Joseph Cunneen
  • Robert Bresson, by Philippe Arnauld, Cahiers du cinema, 1986
  • The Films of Robert Bresson, Ian Cameron (ed.), New York: Praeger Publishers, 1969.
  • Robert Bresson, by Keith Reader, Manchester University Press, 2000.
  • "Robert Bresson", a poem by Patti Smith from her 1978 book Babel
  • "Spiritual style in the films of Robert Bresson", a chapter in Susan Sontag's Against Interpretation and other essays, New York: Picador, 1966.
  • Robert Bresson (Revised), James Quandt (ed), Cinematheque Ontario Monographs, 2012 (752 pages) (ISBN 978-0-9682969-5-0)
  • Neither God Nor Master: Robert Bresson and Radical Politics by Brian Price (University of Minnesota Press, 2011, 264 pages).
  • Bresson on Bresson: Interviews, 1943–1983 by Robert Bresson, translated from the French by Anna Moschovakis, edited by Mylène Bresson, preface by Pascal Mérigeau (New York Review Books, 2016)

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ "Robert Bresson". Les Gens du Cinéma (in French). 28 July 2004. Retrieved 19 February 2014. This site uses Bresson's birth certificate as its source of information.
  2. ^
  3. ^ a b Institute, The British Film. "BFI - Sight & Sound - Robert Bresson: Alias Grace". Archived from the original on 3 August 2012. Retrieved 9 August 2018.
  4. ^ "The 1,000 Greatest Films (Top 250 Directors)". They Shoot Pictures, Don't They. Retrieved 25 June 2016.
  5. ^ "Votes for A Man Escaped (1956)". British Film Institute. Retrieved 27 January 2017.
  6. ^ "Critics' Top 100". British Film Institute. Retrieved 23 January 2018.
  7. ^ "Votes for Au hasard Balthazar (1966)". British Film Institute. Retrieved 27 January 2017.
  8. ^ "Robert Bresson". British Film Institute. Retrieved 27 January 2017.
  9. ^ Godard, Jean-Luc (27 June 1972). Godard on Godard; critical writings [This comment on Bresson was taken from a special issue of Cahiers du Cinéma]. Viking Press. p. 47.
  10. ^ "Robert Bresson Biography (1907-1999)". Retrieved 9 August 2018.
  11. ^ Liukkonen, Petri. "Robert Bresson". Books and Writers ( Finland: Kuusankoski Public Library. Archived from the original on 27 October 2007.
  12. ^ James Quandt, Cinémathèque Ontario (1998). Robert Bresson. Cinemathèque Ontario. p. 411. ISBN 978-0-9682969-1-2. Around the time of 'Lancelot du Lac' (1974), Bresson was said to have declared himself "a Christian atheist."CS1 maint: uses authors parameter (link)
  13. ^ Bert Cardullo (2009). The Films of Robert Bresson: A Casebook. Anthem Press. p. xiii. ISBN 978-1-84331-796-8. A deeply devout man—one who paradoxically described himself as a "Christian atheist" — Bresson, in his attempt in a relatively timeless manner to address good and evil, redemption, the power of love and self-sacrifice, and other such subjects, may seem to us, and perhaps was, something of a retrogression.
  14. ^ Hayman, Ronald (Summer 1973). "Robert Bresson in Conversation". Transatlantic Review (46–47): 16–23.
  15. ^ Robert Bresson interview 1 (1983) with english subs. YouTube. Event occurs at 11:17.
  16. ^ "Robert Bresson". The Guardian. 22 December 1999. Retrieved 10 August 2017.
  17. ^ Rosenbaum, Jonathan (1 April 2004). "Defending Bresson". Chicago Reader. Retrieved 2 March 2017.
  18. ^ "Robert Bresson, Film Director, Dies at 98". The New York Times. Retrieved 3 April 2020.
  19. ^ Pipolo, Tony (2010). Robert Bresson: A Passion for Film. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0195319798.
  20. ^ a b Bresson, Robert (1997). Notes on the Cinematographer. Green Integer. ISBN 978-1557133656.
  21. ^ Ben-gad, Shmuel (1997). "To See the World Profoundly: The Films of Robert Bresson". CrossCurrents. Retrieved 25 September 2015.
  22. ^ Ebert, Roger (23 December 1999). "Robert Bresson was master of understatement". Retrieved 25 September 2015.
  23. ^ James Quandt, Robert Bresson (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1998), 9.
  24. ^ Dictionary of Films: ISBN 0-520-02152-5, page 228.
  25. ^ a b Cousins, Mark (26 September 2011). The Story of Film. Pavilion. ISBN 978-1862059429.
  26. ^ a b [1]
  27. ^ a b "TSPDT - Robert Bresson". Retrieved 9 August 2018.
  28. ^ Le Cain, Maximillian. "Andrei Tarkovsky". Archived from the original on 23 March 2010.
  29. ^ "Andrei Tarkovsky Quotes (Author of Sculpting in Time)". Retrieved 9 August 2018.
  30. ^ "Robert Bresson - Awards". Internet Movie Database. Retrieved 3 April 2020.
  31. ^ "Robert Bresson - Awards". Internet Movie Database. Retrieved 3 April 2020.
  32. ^ "Robert Bresson - Awards". Internet Movie Database. Retrieved 3 April 2020.

External linksEdit