Robert Bresson as a Precursor to the Nouvelle Vague: A Brief Historical Sketch

Bresson and the New Wave

by Colin Burnett Volume 8, Issue 3 / March 2004 29 minutes (7041 words)

In the world of today, whatever the domain, France can now shine only through exceptional works.  Robert Bresson illustrates this rule in the cinema.  He is the French cinema, as Dostoyevsky is the Russian novel and Mozart is German music.  Listen to him: “A good craftsman loves the board he planes….  There is a sublime awkwardness which remains indifferent to virtuosity—it is from this defect that emotion is born in the spectator, an emotion similar to that which guides us when we do something our skill condemns….  My craft is an apprenticeship; which does not mean something which can be taught….  The film is a perfect example of the work which demands a style; it needs an author, a signature….  One must break with the prejudice against simplicity….  Know how to choose one’s tools, and often choose the wrong ones provided one knows they are wrong….  One must withhold and give.” (Godard 47) In the wake of the New Wave, and provoked to a large extent by the experience of the films themselves, has come more formal discussion about the cinema than there has been since the abortive theorizing of the ‘twenties.  This process undermined many of the preconceptions about film which had been accepted equally by the ‘commercial’ and ‘art’ cinemas.  Here the key figure has been Godard […].  The New Wave has provided not so much the inspiration for the films described in this book—many of them were made before their director had seen films by Godard and the rest—but has created the pre-conditions for their acceptance. (Cameron 5)

Robert Bresson and Jean-Luc Godard played pivotal roles in the survival and eventual revolutionary change of French cinema in the 1950s and 60s.  In their own separate ways, the latter directly and the former indirectly, they helped create and were key figures in a ‘new wave’ of French cinema through their theoretical speculations and innovative film techniques.  The theoretical stances of both filmmakers regarding the turpitude of contemporary French cinema and their speculations about ‘what cinema is and could be’ were directly expressed in their films.  With his ‘ascetic’ style, Bresson protested against what he perceived to be the enslavement of film audiences to ‘dramatic,’ ‘theatrical,’ chronological storytelling that plagued cinema and reduced it to mere “théâtre photographié.”  Whereas Bresson remained relatively loyal to this position and to a particular style (at least in theory), Godard consistently reinvented himself—politically, theoretically, artistically—and his approach to filmmaking, however, one element remained constant: his belief in the importance of challenging formal and stylistic conventions.  Whether he was in ‘political’ or ‘romantic’ mode, Godard always enjoyed playing with the juxtaposition of contradictory elements, arguably reaching his artistic zenith in his films prior to 1968. 

If Godard is the cornerstone of the New Wave, then Bresson might be posited as a prototype for the movement, or what I shall call ‘proto-New Wave.’  Although it must be ceded that Bresson was neither as overtly experimental nor as outwardly political as the filmmakers of this era-defining shift and the critics of Cahiers du cinéma that gave rise to it, he did express key concerns in his films and theories of the 50s that would later be adopted and elaborated upon by the early 60s Cahiers group and the new filmmakers that it produced.   The concepts of mise-en-scène and politique des auteurs, which received theoretical backing from the theorists of the 50s Cahiers, especially from André Bazin, became common currency in the period in question and were used to defend the work of filmmakers like Bresson, who was one of the few of that period to demonstrate awareness of the importance of auteurism through his films and the interviews he gave. 

The argument that Bresson was a precursor to the French New Wave, as exemplified here by the films and theories of Godard prior to 1968, will turn on a re-creation of the social, political and artistic climate of this period.  As artists and, in the case of the second, as a critic, Bresson and Godard were responding both to the film tradition before them and, mostly in the case of the ‘political’ Godard, to the social and political conditions of the time, namely, the delayed industrialization of post-war France, the crisis generated from the final stages of France’s colonial wars in Indo-China and Algeria, and the almost unanimous bewilderment caused by the birth of the Fifth Republic and its Gaullist regime.  By way of an historical analysis, then, we will bring to light the contributions of these two filmmakers to the discourse on the nature and the problematic conditions of cinematic representation in the era of so-called ‘late capitalism.’

Across the 40s and 50s Bresson made six films, of which three, Les Affaires publiques, Les Anges du péché, and Les Dames du bois de Boulogne, are customarily dismissed by critics as preliminary efforts by the filmmaker.  It is generally accepted, in addition, that with Journal d’un curé de campagne, he solidified a unique, esoteric style that would persist more or less throughout the rest of his career.  Setting aside the contentiousness of this categorical dismissal of Bresson’s early work, the historical and artistic parallels with early Godard are worthy of consideration.  In the years 1959 to 1963, arguably the most important and artistically fruitful of the New Wave, Godard completed six feature length films, including À bout de souffle, Vivre sa vie, and Le Mépris.  It was in these years that a marked artistic rupture occurred in French cinema, a creative metabolē.  The rupture, of course, was the New Wave, but to what cinematic tradition was it reacting?  What were the historical events and film theories and practices that formed the cultural backdrop of—and therefore had a great deal of influence on—the films of the 50s and 60s?  While we should be cognizant of the dangers of radical historicism and its bedfellow, historical or contextual determinism, I think it safe to assume that any comfortable grasp of the innovations of the New Wave must necessarily be preceded by an understanding of the historical period that shaped the film tradition to which this movement was opposed.   

France by the end of the 50s is in desperate need of something fresh to cleanse the air and the lands of the Fourth Republic.  The Occupation, the Collaboration, the rules established at the time of Liberation, not to mention the colonial wars in Algeria and the continued economic, political and cultural subordination of France to the United States—against all of this France remains metaphorically silent.  In the late 50s, accompanying these challenges is a growing concern for the welfare of French youth.  The young are forced to spend three years serving in the French military, and around this time, a million of them are sent to Algeria to fight.  It is the newspaper L’Express that first seeks to educate the French on the state of their youth.  In 1957, it proclaims: “La Nouvelle Vague arrive” (Maillot 226).  This proclamation of course has nothing to do with cinema; its sole concern is to question the stability of the French government and its war with Algeria.  The new wave that is needed still has not arrived, although its seeds have certainly been planted by this time.

The next year sees the French masses swept up by a huge political wave that many believe would provide the vehicle for change.  The Fourth Republic brings de Gaulle to power, to the enthusiastic approval of the population.  But is this wave new in any way?  Would the young French, most of whom are now students due to the democratization of education, identify with the new government and find their aspirations at the political forefront?  Needles to say, said students are a restless bunch and in search of direction, and de Gaulle’s vision would prove unsatisfying.  Instead, the period’s new music and cinema would sweep them up, with the later gaining exclusivity to the term ‘New Wave.’  (As is common knowledge, the New Wave fails as a sustained social revolution.  The filmmakers and critics of the period swiftly diverge from the original discourse on French national identity and focus their attention upon their individual themes and preoccupations.) 1

Already in the late 50s, the New Wave begins its assault on traditional French cinema.  Consider the following: between 1959 and 1961, 97 new filmmakers make their first films, whereas in prior years French cinema produced at best two or three new filmmakers per year (Maillot 226).  France is in the midst of a revolution, but one that has at its core the desire to make films.  Fueled specifically by a radical rejection of the heritage of French cinema, which, between the 30s and 50s, is dominated by literary adaptations resulting in the lionization of the scriptwriter as the key creative figure behind a film, young French filmmakers spawn a golden age.  In the preceding decades, Charles Spaak, Henri Jeanson, Jean Aurenche, and Pierre Bost were lauded as champions of adaptation and esteemed by critics and audiences alike.  As the textual producers of the so-called cinéma de qualité of the 50s, they are targeted and despised by the key figures of the New Wave, especially the critics of Cahiers du cinéma

In this decade of turmoil Robert Bresson rises to prominence.  He, like the New Wave filmmakers and the new generation of Cahiers critics after him, attack the tradition of the cinéma de qualité, but his attack is so unique in its stance and thorough in its execution (in the form of his films), that Bresson, in effect, declares war upon all other film traditions as well.  It is this eccentric individuality that makes him celebrated by the New Wave as one of the few French filmmakers of the post-war period that is concerned with cinema as an art form and not simply with remaining loyal to a source literary text in its adaptation to film.   And while Bresson did adapt literary works—a section of a Diderot novel (for Les Dames du bois de Boulogne), two novels by Bernanos (for Mouchette and Journal d’un curé de campagne), four novels by Dostoyevsky (for Pickpocket, Au hasard Balthazar,Une Femme douce, and Quatre nuits d’un revêur) and so on—his main concern in the making of these films is to use the shell of the original story (and some lines of dialogue) to express his vision of post-war France in his own particular cinematic ‘language.’   

With “Une Certaine tendence du cinéma français,” a founding text of the future New Wave, Francois Truffaut officially inaugurates the destructive discourse.  Lambasting the so-called “Tradition de la Qualité” established by Aurenche and Bost for its so-called ‘psychological realism’ and a ‘literary fidelity,’ he indicts this group’s ‘masters of adaptation’ for failing to display sufficient loyalty to cinema.  Because they are not “hommes du cinéma” and therefore lack any awareness of the capabilities of this medium, their attempts to graft literary or highbrow values onto film eschews any concern for cinema as an independent art form.  Their contemptuous underestimation of the unique communicative and stylistic capabilities of the 7th Art leads them to ‘aim low,’ that is, to seek mere ‘equivalence,’ for the limited range of the art of these films consists merely of using a visual and auditory medium to translate (as opposed to transform) some previously hailed piece of literature.  The so-called ‘psychological realism’ that their characteristically literary films expound is neither realistic nor psychological, at least not on sufficiently cinematic terms, New Wavers would contend.  The stabs at ‘universality’ apparent in the content of these films—watered-down, stale, uninventive themes developed almost exclusively through dialogue—encapsulates the issue that Truffaut brings forth: these adapters are undermining the potential authenticity and value of cinema as a transmitter of vivid emotion through the innovative use of image and sound and reducing it to a kind of bastard son of literature, unable to communicate themes and events in a way that is different from or beyond the means of discursive forms.  I mean no disrespect to the accomplished technicians and craftsmen at work on films of the period, for I simply mean to illustrate that, in the end, Truffaut believes that this model of filmmaking is artistically asphyxiating for the director.  Superior, though largely forgotten, cinematographers, for example, were at work in this era—Léonce-Henri Burel and Philippe Agostini being two exemplars and significant Bresson collaborators throughout the 40s and 50s.  But granting these craftsmen their due was not on the New Wave’s agenda; defending the autonomy of the auteur was.  Truffaut’s point, briefly stated, is that if the literary adapter and screenwriter are celebrated, then the actual filmmaker, or metteur-en-scène, is placed in the subordinate role and films are essentially born at the moment the script is completed.  The New Wave therefore becomes a formalist movement that liberates the filmmaker from the limitations of valued cinematic conventions and the cultural politics of the epoch. 

The influence of Truffaut’s early writings upon the New Wave movement cannot be stressed enough.  His work is of particular value in leading the new filmmakers and Cahiers critics to embrace the concept of auteur through its emphasis on the value of a film’s mise-en-scène.  As an aside, while this is the area for which the New Wave is best known, it did not invent auteurism; René Clair defended this theory in the 20s.  The filmmakers of the New Wave and the Cahiers critics, however, popularize it and help the notion of film art as the expression of the singular vision of an individual to gain comfortable acceptance, to the point which we are actually too comfortable with it today.   

In the late 50s and early 60s, Godard also leaves his mark by defending the importance of the auteur and mise-en-scène.  On the broadest of terms, he demonstrates all the major traits of the 20th Century artist, which is perhaps why he is lead to embrace the aforementioned theories.  Godard is a critic first and a film artist second.  I am not suggesting that all artists in the last century began as critics, but rather that most artists produced works that were thoroughly self-involved.  A good part of the revolutionary art of the last century, to make a statement that is almost criminally reductive, was hyper-consciously critical as it measured itself against major contemporary trends.  In the Introduction to Godard on Godard, Richard Roud illustrates the point well and then quotes directly from Godard:

in 1962, after four feature films, [Godard] still was, he said, a critic, and in a sense, even more than before.  “Instead of writing criticism, I make a film, but the critical dimension is subsumed.  I think of myself as an essayist, producing essays in novel form, or novels in essay form: only instead of writing, I film them.” (Godard on Godard 9)

Godard’s cinephilia, his study of film history and his knowledge of ‘old’ films, naturally lead him to seek a theory that would help categorize all that he had seen.  Roud offers this explanation for Godard’s adoption of the politique des auteurs: “Is not the auteur theory itself only an attempt at an indexing system, an attempt to bring some order to the enormous corpus of films?”  Although this point is valid, it does not satisfy.  Godard, I judge, is drawn to the politique des auteurs as a critic and artist because it serves to maintain the integrity of an individual’s personal vision in forced defiance of the Tradition de la qualité, not to mention the increasing tide of hegemony brought on by modern industrial production, as is exemplified in the increasing ‘Americanization’ of the contemporary international film market and the threatening multiplication of film studios and their growing dominion over film production.  The New Wave and French ‘Neo-Realism’ are efforts launched against this trend, as are the films of Bresson. 

In the eyes of Cahiers critics Bresson’s movies of the 50s are like those of the American masters of the post-war period in that they demonstrate the possibility and integrity of the alternative, personalized approach to an art that is fundamentally collaborative and more adept at developing ‘group’ styles.  A contemporary film person looking back on this theory and period and possessing 20/ 20 hindsight would undoubtedly cave to sobriety and cede that auteurism of this sort is a dream that works well in this context as a political and cultural tactic.  And with this sentiment, I would agree.  Bresson uses the tactic just as effectively as the New Wavers, perhaps more effectively so in the manner in which he ‘lives’ the part with a more level-headed consistency.  That said, while Hawks and Welles used the studio system and American film practices against themselves and to their fullest, Bresson’s oppositional filmmaking consists of one of the initial examples of what Susan Hayward calls “counter-cinema” (Hayward 238), a term also used to describe the practices of the filmmakers of the New Wave, in that it revolts against the predominant customs of film production, in this case, French film production.  In his almost career-long refusal to use professional actors (he used modèles), to allow his ‘models’ to perform or express their roles, and in his equally consistent elimination of all forms of engaging suspense (and therefore to place the audience at a distance from the events in the film through the use of elliptical editing), to flatten the image at all costs (he consistently, although not exclusively, used a 50-millimeter lens), to use sound and music carefully and sparsely, to depict themes that were less than mainstream (including rape, theft and suicide) and to film on location to add an element of ‘realism,’ Bresson stands on his own as an original, or as an auteur who clearly cherishes his vision and would not compromise it in the face of the standardization of film practices or to meet the standards of the tradition before him.  

Disliking the films of his time to so great an extent, Bresson goes so far as to claim that he actually stopped going to the movies altogether.  Whereas the Cahiers group attacks the cinéma de qualité for its proclivity to view film as the extension of the novel, the heart of Bresson’s aggression toward the films of 50s is his fear that film is being viewed as and reduced to “théâtre photographié.”  For this reason, he rejects all that is associated with contemporary cinema, including the term ‘cinema’ itself, preferring to call autonomous, anti-theatrical cinema, “cinématographie.”  In the following excerpt from an interview he gave with l’Institution des Hautes Études Cinématographiques in 1955, Bresson elaborates upon his conception of ‘cinema:’

Le cinéma qu’on voit jusqu’à présent n’est pas du cinéma mais, et sans exception, du théâtre photographié, dont le moyen d’expression est le moyen d’expression théâtral, c’est-à-dire celui des acteurs, avec une mimique, des gestes.  Le cinéma, s’il veut être du cinéma, devrait absolument abolir toute expression théâtrale, y compris l’expression des acteurs.  À partir du moment ou l’expression est théâtrale, il n’y a plus d’expression cinématographique.  Il faut que les images aient une qualité, une neutralité indispensable pour qu’il y ait des échanges entre les images, car un film est fait non pas d’images mais de relations, de rapports d’images (…)   Le cinéma est un moyen de découverte.  Vous devez donner l’impression que le film est une avancée dans l’inconnu.  Là, il n’y a pas d’erreur.  Avec des acteurs ou des actrices connus, ou des vedettes, vous allez vers le connu.  (…)

Si vraiment le cinéma est un moyen de s’exprimer, un art, il ne le sera qu’en repoussant tous les autres arts.  Or, en ce moment, il ne les repousse pas; il y a un art qu’il attire à lui, c’est l’art dramatique; ce n’est plus le cinéma, c’est du théâtre photographié!

(Bresson, “Le mise-en-scène n’est pas un art” 4-5)

Bresson did have his moments of auteurist frenzy or madness.  In his declaration of war against ‘photographed theater,’ he goes so far as to attack theater itself, whence the claim at the end of the same interview that “mise-en-scène is not an art form.” 2 As extreme or, conversely, as justifiable as this last claim may sound, all of these beliefs are founded upon his conviction that the communicative and creative limits of cinema are beyond those of the predominant film practices of the day—a sober message underlying a drunken surface.
Like the other avant-garde filmmakers of the 50s and 60s, Bresson sought ultimately to answer the question, ‘what is cinema?’—in his case, not in words but on celluloid.  If the creative boundaries of this young medium lay beyond theater or the novel, then it was the work of these figures and the films and theories of their American counterparts that helped redefine cinema as its own art form with its own particular ‘language.’  Cahiers critics, for the sake of opposition, then, sing the praises of the visions and efforts of the ‘masters’ of cinema, of Chaplin, Ford, Hawks, Hitchcock, Mizoguchi and Bresson.  These auteurs exemplify autonomy and authenticity for the new filmmakers of the early 60s, and it is precisely in the context of the power relations within industrial film production that the status of the auteur must be protected from constant threat. 

The politique des auteurs expounded by the Cahiers critics in the early 60s is closely bound to the concept of mise-en-scène.  The auteur, so the theory goes, is responsible and distinctive for his personality and how it is etched into the film at the level of style, not necessarily for subject matter, making it so that he does not have to concern himself with being the ‘totality’ of the production (i.e. he does not have to write the script, edit, etc.)  The emphasis on style, mise-en-scène in particular, is a shift from the earlier concept of auteur as defended by Clair.  In this, the New Wave’s initial formulation of auteurism, the new Cahiers critics imbue the concept with added significance in order to justify the attention and accolades they pay to the masters of American cinema, where the director has little or no control over post-production, not to mention the production itself.  “The only space for creativity was with the mise-en-scène,” writes Susan Hayward, in French National Cinema, “which became the expressive tool at the filmmaker’s disposal, and it was through a reading of that mise-en-scène_—the _Cahiers critic Pierre Kast was responsible for introducing this important concept of _lecture_—that a critic could both determine the specificity of the cinematographic work and decipher the film’s text and subtext” (Hayward 141).  Montage, taken here not simply as a technique but as a theory of cinema, which had been on theorists’ minds at least since Eisenstein and others, has a shadow cast over it as the defining characteristic of the art of cinema.

     Under the influence of Bazin, new Cahiers writers, including Godard, believe that montage is a manipulative, ‘unrealistic’ filmmaking technique that fragments or dissects reality, pre-digesting it for the spectator.  Stated with the utmost brevity, Bazin argues that realism and ‘objectivity’ could only be maintained through a predominance of deep focus shots in long takes or an omniscient field of vision (Hayward 141-2).  (Although, it must be admitted that Bazin, as a defender of literary adaptations, distanced himself from the celebration of mise-en-scène and its implicit subordination of subject matter.)  Quite reasonably, Cinemascope would come to be cherished by the New Wave filmmakers for its unimpeded, panoramic presentation of the events depicted on screen, and its creation of a perceptual spectrum that comes close, according to these critics, to limits of the human eye. 

Historically speaking, the position of the Cahiers critics on the concepts of auteur and mise-en-scène is by no means stable, even during the early years of the New Wave when it appeared as though they had vanquished all other theoretical approaches to film.  An analysis of the documentation of the period clearly illustrates this point. 3 But for the purposes of this inquiry, the above summary of their views will be sufficient.  What is important to point out here is that Godard, for only a short time, perhaps, also rejects the reality-distorting effects of montage, adopting the stance that montage alone is not self-guiding.  Document #14 in Godard on Godard, entitled “Montage my Fine Care,” dated December 1956, clearly demonstrates that he only accepts fragmenting a scene with montage when it is forced to submit to, or when it is at the service of, mise-en-scène.  He states the need for a balance between these techniques:

[t]he montage, consequently, both denies and prepares the way for the mise-en-scène: the two are interdependent.  To direct means to scheme, and one says of a scheme that it is well or badly mounted. (Godard 40; emphasis in source).

These points are of particular value because they hint at Godard’s increasing favoritism toward the inclusion of the ‘instantaneous’ and the ‘unexpected.’  His interest in improvisation and its ability to reveal the secret, hidden moment from an actor therefore curbs his early theory of montage-use.  The relative lack of montage effects in his earliest features, coupled with his refusal to cut away in these films (save, of course, in the case of À bout de souffle), allows him to emphasize moments captured almost by chance and to experiment with the lengthy, uninterrupted sequence shot, especially in a film that is of particular interest to this inquiry, Vivre sa vie (1962), and more specifically, in the scene where Nana dances around the pool room (a scene that has a marked feel of spontaneity to it). 

“The cinema is always optimistic because everything is always possible,” states Godard, in his “Let’s Talk about Pierrot” interview with the Cahiers.  “Nothing is ever prohibited: all you need is to be in touch with life” (Godard 233).  This insistence upon experimentation (which echoes Bresson’s sentiment that cinema is a medium of p 35 discovery)[[This is particularly true at the level of technique. In his interview with Charles Thomas Samuels, Bresson, when asked to elaborate on his belief that his films are “sometimes solutions to technical problems,” responds:

I like exercise for its own sake. That is why I regard my films as attempts rather than accomplishments. People always ask me about the motivation of my characters, never about the arrangement of shots. (62)]], his inclusion of elements of the ‘real’ (the convergence of reality and fiction), such as in his location shooting and his later use of documentary footage, and his demand for a cinema of disengagement that suggests the influence of Brecht form the three most important stylistic characteristics of Godard’s films prior to 1968.  We now shift from Godard as critic to Godard as filmmaker, and while it was stated earlier that these two ‘Godards’ are inseparable, a qualification on this point must now be added. 

In his critical work, a substantial sample of which appears in Godard on Godard, the author often contradicts himself as he vacillates from one theory to the next.  A prime example of this is his advocacy of the classical construction of cinema, its “artificial grandeur,” and its contempt for “photographing a world seized by accident,” in a major work from the early period of his critical career, “Defense and Illustration of Classical Construction” (Godard 29).  Obviously Godard would come to oppose this celebration of the rejection of chance in film, especially in “Bergmanorama,” in which he accents the creative virtue of the “instantaneous” (Godard 77).  Much of Godard’s critical output therefore defies classification, complicating attempts at reducing it to one common theory or even to an underlying series of interests.  Such is the nature of the spontaneous and protean form of frontline film criticism.  His writings, I judge, are of greatest use when seen in the light of his films, for only then can one grasp what critical views Godard actually valued and what ones he merely toys with or forwards as attempts to stir the cultural pot.

Vivre sa vie, taken as an exemplar of Godard’s early career in film production, exhibits the three characteristics previously referred to, and as such, it is the director’s personal New Wave ‘statement’ about what cinema can truly be as opposed to what cinema was in the tradition of the cinéma de qualité.  It not only breaks taboos of subject matter by focusing on prostitution in the modern world, but becomes known for its ‘retour au réel,’ or naturalist, elements.  Displaying a mix of the facets of the New Wave that Godard had explored more individually in his earlier films—the genre elements, intertextuality and improvisational techniques of À bout de souffle (1959), the politics of Le Petit soldat (1960), and the narrative experimentation of Une Femme est une femme (1961), Vivre sa vie is a culmination of the New Wave at that time in its opposition to the status quo, its conscious reflexivity, and its stab at creating a new cinematic ‘language.’  Analysis of a key scene from the film should illustrate these points.

Vivre sa vie sets out to show something, not to explain it.  It strips away all superfluities, leaving behind twelve fragments of a much larger story.  An attempt at cinematic ‘objectivity,’ the film’s perspective is virtually uniform, offering no questionable testimonies or stylistic ‘slip-ups’ that would allow the audience to doubt the credibility of the information being relayed.  In a distant manner, one that at moments recalls the tone of classical documentary, Godard shows Nana becoming a prostitute and the events and encounters that lead to her eventual death.  The style of the film is not unlike that of Pickpocket, in which the story is pared down and the audience is presented with only that which is necessary to gain an ‘objective,’ or at the very least, a jarringly untrammeled, perspective on what occurs.  But the similarities between these two films do not end there.  In Episode XII, in which Nana and her lover exchange banalities about love, Godard reduces the film to silence, using sub-titles to convey bits of dialogue to the audience.  This foray into silent film represents the culmination of Godard’s experimentation in this film with the relationship between image and word, or between the ‘seen’ and the ‘heard,’ or in this case, the ‘seen’ and the ‘read.’ “In the silent film,” writes Susan Sontag, in her essay “Godard’s Vivre sa vie:”

the word—set down in the form of titles—alternated with, literally linked together, the sequences of images.  With the advent of sound films, image and word became simultaneous rather than successive.  […]  Godard restores the dissociation of word and image characteristic of silent film, but on a new level.  […]  Thus, _Vivre sa vie _must be seen as an extension of a particular cinematic genre: the narrated film.” (Sontag 200-201)

In this way, Godard expands on a technique of narrative presentation (in the true sense of the word) used by Bresson in many of his films of the 50s and 60s. 

In Pickpocket, Bresson assembles a series of scenes about his protagonist, but he dissociates the scenes from one another to break up any ‘unrealistic’ dramatic tension.  The scenes remain bound (in a seemingly loose way), however, by the protagonist and his journal entries and narrative voice-overs.  Bresson places word before image or even, at times, replaces images with words and elects to tell part of the story elliptically.  His films are therefore stories told in linear time through a conglomeration of ellipses.  An instance of this in _Pickpocket _is when Michel decides to leave for London for a few years.  The audience never sees Michel in London, nor does it even have the privilege to see Michel on the train.  All that is shown is Michel at the train station, coming and then going.  The London sequence is totally replaced and told through Michel’s voice-over.  As in the case of Godard’s film, the dissociation of word and image is restored, but the effect of this dissociation adds up to more than a feeling of fragmentariness in which the constitutive parts fail to re-assemble themselves.  

“[T]he essence of cinema […],” states Bresson in an interview with Charles Thomas Samuels, “is immediacy” (63).  “I never try to show anything that is impossible,” he says elsewhere in the same interview (74).  In this brief interlude from Pickpocket, Bresson creates a layered experience that aspires to act as a cinematic substitute for the actual, that is, for the continuum of lived experience, paring away the inessential or unnecessary.  Its ‘realism’ lies not in a particular shot and its duration but in the cumulative effect of a series of parameters that appear to have little intrinsic value on their own:

[…] I want to make things so concentrated and so unified that the spectator feels as if he has seen one single moment.  I control all speech and gesture so as to produce an object that is indivisible.  Because I believe that one moves an audience only through rhythm, concentration and unity. (68)

Staging the segment in this manner, distilling several years into a few moments of screen time, Bresson squeezes this plot element into an irreducible concentrate, into an essence for which there can be no substitute in any other medium.    

In these segments, Godard and Bresson meditate upon the relation between image and language and their connection to reality and verisimilitude.  And while Vivre sa vie and Pickpocket do not ‘show’ the same things in the same manner, they certainly hold in common the fact that they each ‘show’ a lot and ‘explain’ very little.  What might be developed further, however, is the notion that while both seek to make of film an experience that aspires to be an equivalent to ‘lived’ life—a ‘seen’ and a ‘heard’ and not a message told (this is what I mean by ‘objective’)—, both, one more subtly than the other, suggest in the films discussed here an implicit critique of this crack at unmediated cinema, and this, not through their ‘Bazinian’ or ‘realist’ elements, but through their various similarities with Soviet filmmakers of the 20s and their tendency to fragment ‘the whole’ rather than present it ‘as is.’  In this context, Godard is more of a disciple of Sergei Eisenstein while Bresson bears much in common with Lev Kuleshov. 4 Setting this aside, on the whole Godard expands upon Bresson’s initial explorations into narrated cinema by eliminating a singular point of view and presenting the events in Vivre sa vie through a series of documents (texts, narrations, quotations, etc.), thus elevating the subject matter, theoretically at least and only at certain points, to a new level of immediacy, or by creating in the viewer what might be called a new level of consciousness about ‘mediatedness.’  In their parallel search for ways to convey ‘ordinary experience,’ or life as untainted by the conventions of the proscenium arch and the literary, Bresson and Godard arrive at kind of cinema of disengagement that challenges the medium itself on several fronts.  Moreover, what this passing comparison between a few elements of the styles of Vivre sa vie and Pickpocket demonstrates is that Bresson had more than a fleeting influence on the artistic concerns and film techniques of Godard. 5 In seeking to liberate cinema from the increasing uniformity of form and content due to the influence of the industrialization of filmmaking and of other art forms, Bresson, in his films made in the decade preceding the first feature films of Godard and the arrival of the New Wave, was one of the key role models who paved the way and created the possibility for oppositional filmmaking in France. In short, he was a precursor to the New Wave.

Bresson and Godard opposed the Tradition de la Qualité by offering their own personal responses to the question ‘what is cinema?’ Their responses took the form of films, and in the process of creating the films, these two auteurs developed new cinematic ‘languages.’ More precisely, their innovative uses of images and sound opened up a new means of artistic communication, and because their films are characterized by an explicit denial of the possibility of interpretive reduction, the ‘languages’ they create are beyond, or at least different from, literature and other forms of discursive expression. One simply cannot reduce Vivre sa vie and Pickpocket to one interpretation, that is, it would be problematic to state with confidence that Godard intended so and so in this film, or that Bresson was trying to say such and such in that one. Their ‘statements’ are the films themselves, for they can be communicated uniquely through the ‘language’ of cinema. Therefore, in many ways, Godard of the early 60s carried on the work that Bresson had begun in the 50s and took it in new, even political directions. If their films are their responses to the question ‘what is cinema?’, then, at the very least, the responses they have offered are decisive affirmations of cinema as an art form, and the singular visions they developed and expressed firmly establish the position of film directors as artists.


Bordwell, David. “Sound of Silents.” Artforum (April, 2000) Available online

Bresson, Robert. Notes on Cinematography. Trans. Jonathan Griffin. New York: Urizen Books, 1977.

Bresson Robert. “ ‘Une mise-en-scène n’est pas un art:’ Robert Bresson rencontre les étudiants de l’Institution des Hautes Études Cinématographiques (décembre 1955).” Cahiers du cinéma: Hommage Robert Bresson. February 2000: 4-9.

Cameron, Ian. Second Wave. London: Studio Vista, 1970.

Godard, Jean-Luc. Godard on Godard. Trans. Tom Milne. New York: Da Capo Press, 1972.

Hayward, Susan. French National Cinema. New York: Routledge, 1993.

Henderson, Brian Robert. Classical Film Theory: Eisenstein, Bazin, Godard, and Metz. Santa Cruz: University of California, 1975.

Hillier, Jim, ed. Cahiers du cinéma 1960-1968: New Wave, New Cinema, Reevaluating Hollywood. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1986.

Jones, Kent. L’argent. London: British Film Institute, 1999.

Lesage, Julia. “Critical Survey of Godard’s Oeuvre.” Godard: A Guide to Sources and References. Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1979: 11-29.

Maillot, Pierre. “NOUVELLE VAGUE.” Le cinéma français: De Renoir à Godard. Paris: MA Éditions, 1988.

Quandt, James, ed. Robert Bresson. Toronto: Cinematheque Ontario, 1998.

Samuels, Charles Thomas. “Robert Bresson.” Encountering Directors. New York: Capricorn Books, 1972: 57-76.

Sloan, Jane. “Critical Survey.” Robert Bresson: A Guide to Sources and References. Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1983: 5-34.

Sontag, Susan. “Godard’s Vivre sa vie.” Against Interpretation. Toronto: Doubleday, 1990: 196-207.

Sontag, Susan. “The Spiritual Style in the Films of Robert Bresson.” Against Interpretation. Toronto: Doubleday, 1990: 177-195.


  1. The source used to compile this historical information is Pierre Maillot’s reference guide, Le cinéma français: De Renoir à Godard, under the heading “NOUVELLE VAGUE.”
  2. The reader who notices that while the Cahiers group defends mise-en-scène as a proof of the presence of a film artist at work, Bresson debunks mise-en-scène as an art, might be tempted to argue that this is a fundamental point of divergence between a Godard and a Bresson. One could certainly speculate in favor of this. After all, why would Bresson, who must have been cognizant of the Cahiers group’s cause, be attacking the very notion of mise-en-scène if not to challenge that cause? The claim that “mise-en-scène is not an art” is made in an interview in 1955 with the students of l’IDHEC, and to my knowledge, is never repeated by Bresson, or otherwise put, he did not continue to use this claim as the crux for his defense of cinématographie as the only true art of cinema. The reasons for this are uncertain. What is known is that the first famous Cahiers polemics in favor of mise-en-scène appear in the early to mid-50s, but the question remains as to when the term was first used in the context of a defense of auteurism. Bazin’s “Evolution in the Language of Cinema,” as it comes down to us in Hugh Gray’s What is Cinema?, is, according to a note on page 174 of Volume I, a composite of three articles written between 1950 and 1955. This article, combined with the critic’s “An Aesthetic of Reality: Neorealism,” written a bit earlier, in 1948, sing of the ‘realist’ virtues of composition in depth and of the absence of the effects of montage without, on quick glance, actually using the term mise-en-scène. (An examination of the original French might yield different results.) All this to say that if we could establish when the term is first used in print, we could then begin to speculate about, first, whether Bresson was aware of it in his IDHEC interview and, second, whether in using the term Bresson, in the context of his attack on all things theatrical, meant the same thing as the Cahiers critics did in using it to draw attention to certain stylistic elements of a given film director’s body of work. At this preliminary stage, I would hypothesize that Bresson’s attack on mise-en-scène does not bring Godard’s defense of it in the context of cinema under fire, which is not to say that Bresson would have entirely been able to appreciate the style that Godard was to develop in his early work.
  3. For a lucid synopsis of the reasons for Godard’s rejection of the notion of mise-en-scène, see his interview with the Cahiers, entitled “Let’s talk about Pierrot,” in Cahiers du cinéma 171, October 1965.
  4. For more on Bresson’s “Kuleshov” leanings, see Bordwell’s short 2000 Artforum article, “Sound of Silents.”
  5. My research into the directors’ cinematographers of this period, Léonce-Henri Burel and Raoul Coutard, has led me to believe that Burel’s work on Bresson’s films from the 50s and 60s had a great deal of (indirect?) influence upon that of Coutard—influence that is not acknowledged by Barry Salt in Film Style & Technology: History & Analysis.

Colin Burnett, who holds an MA in Film Studies from Concordia University, is a PhD candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His current areas of research include Robert Bresson’s cinematographers, laboratory practice in American cinema of the 20s, and minimalist film style. He has published in Senses of Cinema, Synoptique, and Canadian Journal of Film Studies and has writings in forthcoming editions of Film Quarterly and Studies in French Cinema. Along with Dudley Andrew, he is also editing a special edition of Post Script devoted to the film and photography writing of Susan Sontag.

Volume 8, Issue 3 / March 2004 Essays   film history   french cinema   new wave   people_bresson   robert bresson