What if Bresson’s Crew Had Not?

Curator's Note

How did the distinctive style that we associate with the films of Robert Bresson develop? Who possessed the technical skills, experience, background, and penchant for innovation that made such an evolution possible? The answer has invariably and without hesitation been straightforward: wasn’t it all due to Robert Bresson? But what if we were to interrogate that claim, and, from our questions, find evidence of an alternate genealogy in which Bresson’s cinema could be seen as not exclusively (or at times even largely) due to him, but rather to the collaborative energies of a talented, experienced, and like-minded crew?

To begin: What if the cinematographer Philippe Agostini had not, in Les Anges du péché (1943) and Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (1945), introduced lens diffusers, gauzes, bounce lighting, and flashing, all as a way of increasing the amount of reflective light that seems to animate the walls, hallways, and bedrooms of these two films?[1]

What if the respected silent film cinematographer Léonce-Henry Burel had not come aboard for Journal d’un curé de campagne (1951)—and then stayed for three more films—steering Bresson away from the high contrast aesthetic of The Third Man (which Bresson offered as a representative example), and instead amplifying the use of diffuse, reflective shades that at times approach blurriness?[2] 

What if Bresson’s long-serving set designer Pierre Charbonnier had not already made a series of films and been involved in theatrical projects from the 1920s, such as designing light projections for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes production of Ode (1928) at the Sarah Bernhardt Theater? Aren’t the correspondences clear between the distinctive Bressonian play of light, shadow, and splashes of color, and the spectacular Aurora Borealis light show at the end of Ode? What of Charbonnier’s post-war paintings, which show the same concern with windows, doors, and the trope of the “threshold” that characterizes Bresson’s aesthetic? Given Charbonnier’s prolific output of prewar documentary and Surrealist film, post-war photorealist paintings, and set design skills, should we not see in his evolution a trajectory that parallels Bresson’s own, and that might be productively viewed (as Bresson himself suggests) as a partnership, given the way both men similarly approach visual art?[3]

What do we make of the refined eye of cinematographer Ghislain Cloquet who joined the team after Burel, bringing with him a background in the Left Bank documentary film, and the use of ethereal white backdrops in the frenetic, dream-like sequences of Arthur Penn’s Mickey One (1965)? And what if Cloquet had not been part of Jacques Demy’s American-style production of Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (1967) one year before he worked as the cinematographer on Bresson’s Une femme douce (1969)? What might Cloquet have learned about the coordination of light and pastel shades of pink, yellow, and white from a team of experts in art, set design, sound, music, and costume? Would we end up with the same complex arrangement of yellow, gold, white, and amber hues and highlights, often set on a curtained background (or literal landscape) of forest green that comes to define the palette of Une femme douce (Figure 1)?

What if Bresson and crew had not, at the request of Ghislain Cloquet, watched an unfinished print of Jean-Pierre Melville’s L’Armée des ombres (1969) and, on that evidence, hired the cinematographer Pierre Lhomme for the upcoming Bresson project Quatre nuits d’un rêveur (1972)? What would Quatre nuits look like if Pierre Lhomme had not brought the twilight blue and black that defines Melville’s film, exemplified in the protagonist Phillippe Gerbier as he hides in near complete darkness in a safe house in the French countryside, where artificial light is used in the form of oil lamps, lighters, and burning cigarettes (Figure 2)? Isn’t the connection obvious to the blue and black night scenes of Quatre nuits d’un rêveur where Lhomme uses luminescence in similarly dimly-lit settings to make the scene sparkle and glisten with natural light, whether in shots of brightly-illuminated bateaux-mouches gliding down the Seine (Figure 3), or in the use of prismatic blotches from car headlights, neon signs and glittering streets that structure the opening credits (Figure 4)?

And what if Bresson and crew had, for some reason, not watched Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice (1971), and sat in awed silence by an ending in which cinematographer Pasqualino de Santis drapes sheets and sails across the early morning Venice beach to produce a landscape so diffuse that the young Polish boy Tadzio seems to dissolve into the surrounding pink firmament (Figure 5)? Would we still have had those (k)night camp scenes in Lancelot du lac (1974), carefully designed by de Santis such that the silhouette of the disloyal Mordred is framed by warm brown and golden reflections that emanate from inside the tent (Figure 6)? Can we not also see overt stylistic parallels between the opening credits of Quatre nuits (Figure 4) and Pasqualino de Santis’s efforts to capture Tadzio bathing in the Gulf of Venice, engulfed by prismatic reflective light captured as glistening pink and white bubbles that reflect off the water’s surface and coalesce around his head (Figure 7)?

Should we then speak not of Robert Bresson’s aesthetic, but of a shared Bressonian language made possible through the sacrifice and deprivations of cast and crew (detailed in published accounts by both groups)? Is the Bressonian approach finally a shorthand for a style forged and refined by a community of seasoned professionals working together over many years of exploration and discovery, glued together by a severe, uncompromising leader? Given Robert Bresson’s own lack of knowledge about the technical details of such things as cinematography, and the trust he placed in his crew for decisions involving set design, lighting, color, editing, and even framing, aren’t there more questions that remain to be asked about the Bresson style, foremost among them the people, partnerships, and professional expertise that made such an evolution even possible? 


[1] Colin Burnett, “Muting the image: lighting and photochemical techniques of Bresson’s cinematographers,” Studies in French Cinema (6.3) 222 (2006), pp. 219-230, doi: 10.1386/sfci.6.3.219/1.

[2] Robert Bresson, Revised, ed. James Quandt, “Burel and Bresson: Interview by Rui Noguira,” (Toronto: International Film Festival Cinematheque, 2011), p. 723.

[3] See Bresson’s preface in Pierre Charbonnier, intro. Yvon Taillandier (Paris: J.C. de Chaudun Gallery, 1958), which reads in part: “… it is not by chance that we have joined in the creation of cinema. Is it not known that we implicitly understand one another?”.

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