Inside Bresson’s L’Argent

Interveiw with Jonathan Hourigan

by Colin Burnett Volume 8, Issue 8 / August 2004 24 minutes (5940 words)

Jonathan Hourigan is a London-based writer-director, and a friend of the late Robert Bresson. He is also a long-time collaborator with Colin Burnett has a Master’s in Film Studies from Concordia University, Montréal, and has recently published on Bresson in Offscreen. The following interview, which was conducted by email in September of 2004, is co-published with Offscreen.

The photograph shown below was taken by Jonathan Hourigan at the end of Principal Photography on L’Argent. Photo may not be reproduced without the permission of the photographer.

No one who is an admirer of the films of Robert Bresson could possibly pass up the opportunity to correspond with another who’s actually worked with the director. And yet, such enthusiasm — to which this interviewer inevitably succumbed — is a double-edged sword, particularly when dealing with this director. After all, what exactly does one hope to learn from such an exchange? Why does one interview a contributor/eye witness at all? Is it really safe to assume, as many of us do, that the value of such an account can be measured by the degree of insight it brings to the films themselves? Can the insights into aspects that cannot be learned from the films on their own be used authoritatively to ‘read into’ them? The desire to know more about who Bresson was as a film director — his methods, the way he worked with collaborators, the motions of choice and discard that went into the production itself — is, at its most admirable, fueled only by curiosity. So far, clear sailing.

The problem arises when interviews of this kind become attempts to lift the veil behind which artistic intention hides, to expose what was really meant by the film and its techniques. Here’s where the ice gets dangerously thin with regards to Bresson. Jonathan Hourigan’s responses in the following interview register with a level of discipline in such matters that I can only assume that Bresson would himself have condoned (and which he tended to exercise in the interviews he gave) and that the films themselves call for. In what they say and what they don’t say, these responses encourage a certain degree of caution when tackling this body of work.

While I am personally fascinated with the finished films by virtue of the array of interpretive associations they suggest, thus making Hourigan’s suggestion that Bresson was uniquely interested in the process of making films rather than with the final product — for me at least — a difficult one to fully commit to, I admire how Hourigan tip-toes around and through matters of meaning. Even as he does not deny that Bresson’s work ‘means’ (how could one possibly do so?), he does speak of the films and the written material by means of a series of prudently selected terms. Bresson’s Notes on Cinematography suggest a search for a “documentary of emotions;” L’Argent’s tone is “lucid” rather than pessimistic. Attentive and insightful phrasing such as this, along with the argument for ‘process’ over ‘product,’ triggering as many questions as answers, serves the subject matter well and perhaps sets one on the path to discovering the deeper inner layers of this ambivalent body of work.

- Colin Burnett

This interview was conducted by way of email correspondence.

Colin Burnett: For about how long were you involved with the shoot?

Jonathan Hourigan: I arrived in Paris in late June 1982. My first day working on L’Argent was Tuesday, 29th June, which I think was the 10th day of Principal Photography. I arrived with the crew working at the photographic shop, located on the Boulevard Henri Quatre. My abiding memories of that first day were the oppressive heat, the apparently slow pace of work and Italy’s 2-1 victory over Argentina in the World Cup, to the great delight of Pasqualino de Santis and his Italian crew.

I worked with the crew throughout the summer, in Paris and then in the country. Filming was completed in late November and a first cut was screened within a very few days. The film had already acquired a sinuous grace. I wrote in my production diary of “Beauty and ease and overwhelming spirituality, especially towards the end.”

Thereafter, I regularly accompanied Bresson to the studios where editing and work on the soundtrack continued for several months, prior to the film’s premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in spring, 1983.

CB: What role or roles were you expected to play?

JH: I wasn’t ‘expected’ to play any particular role.

I arrived knowing nothing of the film industry, knowing virtually no French and knowing only the very fully-occupied director amongst those involved in the production. Gradually, as my French improved and I was accepted by the crew, I assumed some of the responsibilities of, perhaps, a very lowly fourth assistant director, running errands and holding back passers-by in the streets, for example. I worked increasingly closely with Bresson’s other three, far better-qualified, assistants. I also appear as an extra in the film, as did many of the crew.

But far more importantly for me, I was there to observe Bresson at close quarters, during both Principal Photography and post-production. He was very generous with his time, even when working under enormous pressure. We would talk daily, either between set-ups or at the end of the day, or when driving to and from locations and screenings.

CB: How exactly did Bresson come to hire you?

JH: It’s more accurate to say that he invited me than that he hired me. Certainly money never changed hands.

As I’ve said, I had no production experience, or even elementary French. I had, however, corresponded with Bresson and we had met in Paris as a result of my interest in his films. I had organised a retrospective in London in 1981 and written about his work. It became apparent that he was planning to shoot L’Argent just as I was expecting to leave university and in early 1982 he invited me to Paris, unpaid, to observe the production. I took no persuading.

CB: Describe the dynamics of the set. How did Bresson interact with/direct his crew?

JH:That summer was very hot and work often seemed slow and frustrating, although I had no basis for comparison. If I recall correctly, the unit call was generally around midday for lunch and we would wrap at around 7pm.
Both Bresson and de Santis, the two dominant personalities, were painstaking in their respective roles. Bresson would decide upon a set-up, discuss it with de Santis and his operator Mario Cimini — which might result in some minor modification — and then leave de Santis to light the scene. Bresson would then return with his models and direct them with great precision. Although Bresson was decisive about camera positions and his models’ actions, getting what he wanted — or needed, or sought — from a particular set-up or take was often elusive. He might, therefore, require more than 20 takes and sometimes as many as 40, only a few of which would be printed.
On 13th August, I wrote about Bresson’s direction of models, “He cajoles, encourages, seduces (roughly in that order) to get his way… Guillaume des Forêts 1 told me R hasn’t changed since he worked with R and that R still exercises extraordinary charm, with a winning smile and endless wit. R’s frustration often seems more evident on this shoot.”

Many of the crew had worked with Bresson before — including de Santis, of course — and they were evidently bound together through professional respect and affection. The length of the shoot and sickness did ensure some additions to and subtractions from the crew. On some days Bresson was in great form. On others, perhaps less so. But it’s important to remember his age, the demands being placed upon him, his own desires and frustrations and the fierce heat of that summer.

As on all film sets, there were occasional frustrations and disagreements. There were, for example, evident tensions between Bresson and his producers, whilst Bresson and de Santis, who was not a fluent French speaker, also, inevitably, clashed on occasions. But both men were also capable of enormous charm, warmth and humour, both to one another and to others.

Bresson was always intensely focused and that implied some separation from the crew. He worked especially closely with de Santis and Cimini, with his assistants and especially with his first assistant, Mylène van der Mersch and with the script supervisor, Françoise Renberg. Once a scene was prepared, he also worked very closely with his models. Bresson was undoubtedly demanding but most especially of himself.

CB: Bresson has, on one occasion at least, intimated that his films are “experiments” 2 . What, in your mind and as a filmmaker yourself, was he experimenting with, stylistically or technologically speaking, in L’Argent?

JH: This is the territory that most interests me. My understanding and views have evolved over the last twenty-odd years.

At the time of arriving on the set of L’Argent, I understood Bresson to be endeavouring absolutely and faithfully to apply the principles outlined in the Notes on Cinematography, which I then believed cohered in a feasible theory. Very roughly speaking, those principles — and that theory — seemed to me to imply a ‘documentary of emotions’.

The automatism imposed on non-professional models allowed unconscious states of soul to be revealed. These states of soul were apprehended by the dual mechanisms of camera and tape recorder. Those revelatory fragments were given expressive form during editing. Bresson conceived of editing as the rhythmic binding together — and thus transformation — of these individually attenuated images. This de-emphasises the significance of script as there is no sense in which a script, laced with pre-determined meaning, is executed.

To that extent, a film is always an ‘experiment’. Models’ unconscious states of soul, which comprise the ‘substance’ or ‘meaning’ of a film, cannot be known in advance or predetermined.
The large number of takes reflect Bresson’s tireless search for the authentic revelation of such states of soul. That which he sought could not be communicated, either to model or to collaborator. Hence Bresson’s frustration and of course, that of others.

More than twenty years on, perhaps I’m less of an absolutist, or purist, about all of this now. My engagement with these issues began at the time, when I was surprised, for example, at the occasional use of sets, rather than locations and the extensive use of lights, both of which seemed to contradict the Notes on Cinematography.

Today, then, I’d want to think a little more about narrative/script and also about the justification for Bresson’s unique approach in the expressive results achieved, rather than in the extent of his adherence to a set of principles. He was, after all, a practical — if rigorous — filmmaker and not a theorist. The Notes on Cinematography are, themselves, working notes and attempts to clarify a series of ideas and practical approaches.

So, thinking about script, tone and conventional narrative ‘meaning’, Bresson’s later films seem to delve deeper into the territory of pessimism, although he might have preferred to say ‘lucidity’. And clearly, even if he sought a ‘documentary of emotions’, this was explored within the context of a very definite narrative structure, with Bresson revealing quite clear tastes and apparent influences in that regard.

To ignore narrative/script would be to ignore one of the major achievements of L’Argent, that is, its extraordinary breadth and depth, all accomplished within a mere, breathless 85 minutes of focus and concentration. Certainly narrative breadth and depth would be one of the ‘experimental’ elements of L’Argent. Only Lancelot du lac compares in this regard, although La Genèse would also have done so. It is worth noting that Bresson kept very close to the script of L’Argent, whilst constantly searching for new, surprising and expressive possibilities as and when they emerged.

Bresson was a noted stylist and minimalist. But making a film, whether writing, shooting or editing, he was also committed to pursuing his intuitions spontaneously. Perhaps, like all great, mature artists, he also sought simplicity, directness and expressive depth. Again, all of these elements and ambitions influenced his approach throughout L’Argent.

All films are, of course, to some extent ‘experiments’, their content and ‘meaning’ unknown and unknowable in advance. Even an obsessive genius like Hitchcock, surely, did not transcend this essential feature of cinema — and of all significant creative endeavours.

But for Bresson, the ‘experimental’ nature of his films was increased by his pursuit of his models’ ‘states of soul’ at the heart of his films and his desire constantly to challenge, simplify and deepen his approach to filmmaking. His concentration was, therefore, always on practice rather than on product.

In conclusion, on 4th August I wrote in my diary, “In the afternoon, R summoned me outside and we spoke… He said that his first films were easy: “I just did them. Like that,” with a dismissive gesture. Now he finds it harder to translate what is in his head onto the screen. “The more you know and the more you work, the harder it gets.” But he said he still hoped to make La Genèse and to do so with the same freedom of his earlier films.”

CB: You spoke earlier of “lucidity” in respect of Bresson’s later films. Is this a term that Bresson himself would use? Can you elaborate on what it might mean, especially if it means referring to his earlier work as anti- or non-lucid? What, for example, do these so-called lucid films have that the earlier films lack?

JH: “Lucidity” is a term Bresson used explicitly, although reluctantly I suspect. He contrasted lucidity with pessimism when responding to those who identified pessimism in his later films. Bresson’s reluctance to explore such distinctions reflected his concern to focus on process, rather than on product and meaning. But he was not unaware of the debate. Mischievously outlining L’Argent to me in 1981, with rather more than a twinkle in his eye, he described it as “a very depressing film… It ends with five deaths.” 3

So, if Bresson was reluctant to explore such distinctions, why did he do so? After all, he was fiercely uncompromising in almost all other debates and notoriously dismissive of questions he did not wish to address. I never discussed this with Bresson but I suspect the development of the notion of “lucidity” fulfilled two functions.

First, Bresson was not unaware of the narrative/tonal shift in his work, which presumably at least partially reflected his shifting perceptions of the world he experienced. But I find it impossible to agree with those who attribute such a shift to his catastrophic loss of religious faith. I knew Bresson personally over quite a long period and I find the trite biographical and psychological ‘analysis’ which develops this meretricious argument entirely unpersuasive. Bresson was neither “an old man looking at the ruin of his face in the mirror,” nor “all dressed down with no place to go” 4 . I would not presume to comment on the extent or nature of Bresson’s faith as he aged but I know, with absolute certainty, that he was vibrant, engaged, curious and passionate throughout his career and life.

If transcendence and grace seem less present in the lives of Charles in Le Diable, Probablement or Yvon in L’Argent than in the lives of Journal d’un curé de campagne, Un condamné à mort s’est échappé, Pickpocket or Au hasard, Balthazar, Bresson’s abundant pity, tenderness and even anger in the face of an increasingly brutal and brutalising world are no less evident. Kent Jones perceptively writes “Does Bresson suspend the possibility of redemption for Yvon? Not exactly. But by shifting the focus from his hero to the forces that overpower him, the difficulty of attaining redemption is given more of a place than redemption itself.” 5 That sounds ominously like clear-sighted lucidity to me in the modern era. Le Diable, Probablement and L’Argent are not, therefore, films of passive acceptance in the face of faithlessness and pessimism.

Furthermore, I wrote in January 1983, as L’Argent neared completion, that “Although Bresson’s later films have been increasingly superficially pessimistic, they are nevertheless underpinned by a continuity of theme which associates them with the earlier films.” The devastatingly articulate silences of Bresson’s models and his concentration, in particular, on their hands, expresses far more than Bresson’s apparent pessimism. In L’Argent, as in Pickpocket, continual images of the models’ hands reveal their extraordinary grace and genius: “Montaigne: The movements of the soul were born with the same progression as those of the body.” 6

Secondly, I’d argue that “lucidity” had an urgent, combative function. This second function is linked to the first but was, surely, far more important to Bresson and is the reason, I suspect, that he was prepared even to comment on the identification of “pessimism” in his oeuvre.

It is clear that, for the majority of those who identified pessimism in Bresson’s later films, this implied decline and diminution. Bresson would have been somewhat unconcerned at commentators’ interpretation of his films and the identification of pessimism but he bristled at the facile and superficial accusation of decline or diminution. Terrence Rafferty’s recent article, for example, separates “the first, and better, half of his career” from those films where “faith seems gone for good, and Bresson by this time has renounced even the small pleasures of dissolves and fades: he now uses only straight cuts, as blunt and brutal as someone walking away in the middle of a conversation.” Of course, Rafferty’s article does not place the entire evidential burden on the elimination of dissolves and fades but its strictures contrast powerfully with Kent Jones’s analysis. Jones writes that Bresson “and no one else has made the intensity of perception a central component of the cinematic experience” and that “L’Argent is a film whose every instant feels so utterly alive.” [5] These are not the negligible achievements of a diminished, superannuated pessimist. They are, rather, the achievements of a master, continually striving and exploring. And creating, with penetrating lucidity.

In conclusion, the various strands of biography, influence, theory and practice that underpin Bresson’s oeuvre and his conception of Cinematography are subtle and intertwined. Elsewhere I’ve tried to sum it up as follows: “For Bresson, uniquely steeped in classicism and Catholicism as much as committed to modernism, cinematography was a working method, a tentative approach to a new medium and one undertaken in isolation from the rest of cinema. The theoretical purity of his cinematography is, finally, rather less important than its practical justification in the richness, humanity, lucidity (Bresson’s preferred term for commentators’ diagnosis of pessimism) and sheer beauty of the films it underpinned.” [[MovieMail, 2003, This combination is the true and abiding measure of Bresson’s experimentation, uniqueness and undoubted genius.

CB: How would you describe the film’s photography? What were some of the important choices that went into forging that look?

JH: Again on 4th August I wrote, “Watching both the shoot and the editing makes me realise how much even an ‘auteur’ such as R owes to his collaborators. PdeS, certainly, is vital, his lighting achieving an evenness of tone and richness and clarity of colour.”

Clearly many of the decisions relevant to the photographic style of the film were made in pre-production and thus, prior to my involvement and so I cannot usefully comment. I certainly don’t recall Bresson ever ‘second-guessing’ de Santis about lighting whilst filming, although the time required to light scenes would sometimes frustrate Bresson, who had a director’s natural desire and impatience to be shooting.

Lighting was not, then, much discussed on set, as far as I recall. But Bresson was certainly endlessly searching for more expressive — in his restrained terms — compositions. On 2nd July I wrote in my diary, “The first exterior shot I have seen undertaken. An exterior of the photographic shop and then a tracking shot to include the passing of the shop key between the young guys. The structure of the tracking shot was suggested by Mario Cimini… R had determined the action and then he and Mario agreed the structure of the tracking shot.”

Bresson would sometimes operate, or view the action through the lens, when the camera was locked off for a particular shot. On 1st July, I noted, “The assistant in the photographic shop today (LUCIEN, Vincent Risterucci) wrapped a camera, opened the till and took a coin from the till at a pace which was determined primarily by the camera’s — and Mario’s — ability to follow the action and keep it in focus.” On the other hand, actions that seemed slow when being shot invariably achieved greater naturalness and apparent pace on screen.

CB: Many shots in the film seem to suggest a fascination with the movement of sometimes barely discernible figures as they appear in reflected surfaces like window panes, such as in the film’s credit sequence, almost as a unique way of making ‘the eye’ just as ‘creative’ as ‘the ear.’ This not only serves to make the shots more ‘dense’ with information we need to process, but also activates off-screen space in such a way that makes even slight camera movements unnecessary (the reflections often allow us to see what could otherwise have been communicated with a simple panning motion). Any idea how or why this idea of using reflective surfaces in this way came about?

JH: You’re way ahead of me and I think, perhaps, even Bresson too. Is it demonstrably true to say that L’Argent reveals such an apparent ‘fascination’, compared with similar films? The relevant comparisons would, I suppose, be the other, later, ‘Paris films’, such as Une femme douce, Quatre nuits d’un rêveur and Le Diable probablement.

I recall the credit sequence being shot, at the very end of Principal Photography. The ATM was photographed in a makeshift studio, rather than as an exterior location shot, with lights being panned across the reflective surface, obviously to suggest passing cars. Clearly, then, this was conscious and intentional. And whilst I also recall other images that include reflective surfaces and reflections, I’m not aware that this was predicated on the kinds of specific considerations you suggest. Or, rather, I’m not sure that I’d want to make too much of it.

My own view is that, of course, much of the film is shot in public spaces, where reflective surfaces and reflections are often present. What is then clear, I believe, is that the film, with its use of a large number of characters and locations, with many extras and passers-by, conspires to draw us all into orbit around L’Argent, dieu visible and into complicity with Yvon’s fate. I think this sense of complicity was conscious. Reflections and reflective surfaces were a necessary and unavoidable part of the public world in which such complicity was suggested. And yes, reflections and sounds create density and suggest off-screen space.

Bresson was never interested in diverging from the concentrated heart of the narrative and so it was useful to create such density and to activate off-screen space through such apparently spare means. But it’s also worth noting that, even if the ATM had been situated in a ‘real’ location, rather than in our makeshift studio, the effective revelation of passing cars might have been rather more demanding than “a simple panning motion.” Such a pan can be ugly, unmotivated — in a way that Bresson’s camera is never externally or objectively motivated — and actually quite difficult to achieve on the crowded boulevards. The economy of the close-up, with panning lights, suited all purposes, including allowing this unintrusive image to accompany the film’s credits.

CB: Generally speaking, the image in a Bresson film is flattened by virtue of various diffusion and even laboratory techniques. We know from other accounts of the use of post-flashing and that de Santis refused to use lens diffusers (he “never” placed anything in front of the lens save for interior and night shots, apparently 7 ). What else may have been used to ‘soften’ the image here? Were these techniques specifically required by Bresson himself, or did he leave the decision up to de Santis and crew?

JH: Bresson’s preference for individually attenuated, uninflected images is well-known and relates to his conception of the transformation of such images during the editing of a film. So, photographic quality, as well as the ‘action’ contained within such images, was certainly an important consideration.

I’ve spoken before about Bresson’s working methods and relationship with de Santis and about de Santis’ approach to lighting scenes. His approach on set was to light extensively but always with diffused, bounced lighting, supplemented with ‘fill’. I did not make extensive notes in my diary about lighting set-ups, apart from the length of time sometimes taken to achieve them! And at this time, I was not sufficiently experienced to understand precisely what was being attempted.

As for laboratory techniques, I really could not comment. I imagine that Bresson will have been very clear about quality, tone and effect but will have left the specific technical means of achieving these objectives to de Santis and his crew, which Bresson will then have scrutinised with very great care.

Meanwhile, in my diary I noted that Emmanuel Machuel seemed to use less diffused lighting than de Santis and to use smaller lights.

CB: It is often said, erroneously in the case of Une femme douce at least, that a Bresson film is “always” shot with a 50mm lens. Was that the case here?

JH: Isn’t Une femme douce shot with a 50mm lens throughout? I haven’t noticed that. I love that film, its structure, rhythms, transactions and use of colour but I haven’t seen it in far too many years. I think it was the second Bresson film I saw, after Au hasard, Balthazar.

CB: In an interview in Philippe Arnaud’s book 8 , Machuel indicates that the shot of Dominique Sanda’s falling scarf at the beginning of the film was not shot with a 50mm. He also says that the shot was not taken by him and that it is the only instance, to his knowledge, of Bresson ever deviating from his customary practice.

JH: Ah, yes, that does make sense. I recall Bresson telling me that the shot of the falling scarf required more than 60 takes. The nature and perspective of the shot clearly required a different lens. A longer focal length lens will have better framed the falling scarf but will also have made following its unpredictable flight more difficult. And of course, merely framing it throughout its descent will not, in and of itself, have satisfied Bresson. I imagine that it was a very difficult shot to achieve to Bresson’s satisfaction, especially as it is so important within the structure of the film.

I thought that your question implied a more systematic departure from the 50mm lens, which would have surprised me. I couldn’t imagine that any such systematic departure would have been a case of necessity rather than choice and yet I couldn’t imagine where such divergence had occurred. I didn’t keep a record of the lenses used on L’Argent but I don’t recall any change of lenses. Bresson certainly had an unerring and uncompromising instinct for framing, composition and camera movement.

CB: The accounts of de Santis’ departure from the film seem to be conflicting, or at the least, a little incomplete. Was it a big deal when de Santis left the shoot? How did Bresson react?

JH: I know enough about the production and about the circumstances of de Santis’s departure to know that I didn’t know the full story at the time.

The departure of a Director of Photography during Principal Photography is clearly unfortunate. I have commented before on the occasional tensions between Bresson and de Santis and indeed, between Bresson and his producers. The production was certainly not without difficulties. However, I have no reason to believe that the relationship between Bresson and de Santis was worse than, or even different from, that which prevailed during the other films they made together.

If I recall correctly, the Italians’ contracts were completed prior to the completion of the film’s Principal Photography. Machuel was a more subdued character than de Santis and whilst there were clearly issues and concerns around the change of cinematographer, I believe that the finished film shows no evidence of dis-continuity.

It is also worth remembering that, amongst the camera crew, Mario Cimini had previously been absent with an eye infection and Michel Abramowicz with a broken arm.

CB: Production designer Pierre Charbonnier worked on all of Bresson’s films from Journal d’un curé de campagne (1951) to Lancelot du Lac (1974) (save Mouchette [1967]), yet little has been written of his impact on Bresson’s films. L’Argent itself was designed by Pierre Guffroy, who did Mouchette. How closely did Bresson work with his production designer?

JH: I did not know Pierre Charbonnier but his long-term professional and personal relationship with Bresson is well-known and extends back beyond even Affaires publiques (1934). Pierre Guffroy had assisted Charbonnier, as well as designing Mouchette.

Bresson expressed a preference for location shooting but his photographic objective — individually attenuated and uninflected images — required subtle, unobtrusive but very careful production design. Much of a director’s work with a production designer is accomplished in pre-production and it is fair to say that I, at least, was not very much aware of Pierre Guffroy’s presence during Principal Photography. But of course, many prison interiors and the interior of the house in the country required construction, which may have consumed much of his time.

CB: Are there any personal anecdotes — about Bresson or any other crew member — that you’d like to share?

JH: Bresson was intensely private. I’ve already spoken about his humour, charm and generosity. I might offer a few brief anecdotes from consecutive dates in my diary that reveal the playful, vivacious side of his character and perhaps the importance of some of these aspects in Bresson’s work:

First, on 12th August, “Another very hot day, Banque de la Cité, Avenue Matignon. Late afternoon, I had a drink on my own with R. Neither of us had any money and so we shared a Perrier water… At one point today, someone asked me if R was Rene Clair. I told R this as we had our drink and he was amused. He asked if the man’s name was Abel Gance, who recently died aged 90-something.”

On 13th August, “Métro Censier Daubenton. When we were here last night, R delighted in the sounds of the Métro. All the different buzzes etc. He either acted them out or conducted them as each train came or went — I wasn’t sure which.“

Bresson was an absolute demon in a car, either as the driver or as a — never very passive — passenger. In both guises and even after a tough day’s work, he would insist on the vehicle being thrown around, overtaking and seeking faster lanes and short-cuts. As a passenger, he would endlessly, impatiently, issue instructions to whoever was driving. Crossing the Place Charles de Gaulle at the end of most days always seemed pretty hazardous.

In similar vein, on 13th August I wrote, “On the way to the projection, we pulled up at the top of Avenue Wagram next to another car with its windows open. Very funky, urban music poured forth, loudly and R leaned out of his window and told the driver that his music was very beautiful. The young man looked at R, elderly and in the front seat of our over-crowded vehicle, as though he were mad. R then started miming to the music saying “this is how the modern music goes”, bouncing around in his seat.”

CB: Emmanuel Machuel was previously an assistant on Au hasard, Balthazar, Mouchette and Une femme douce. There seem to be other examples of individuals that Bresson ‘groomed’ over a series of films. In the Samuels interview, it is intriguing that Bresson mentions that he wishes that filmmaking were like Renaissance painting, that is, that there was a master-apprentice structure of learning in place in the world of cinema. In some way, he accomplished this, did he not? What did you learn as an apprentice yourself? Was he planning on inviting you back for ‘more grooming’ for the ill-fated Genesis project?

JH: I haven’t seen the Samuels interview but classical allusions, examples and metaphors were certainly congenial to Bresson. The Notes on Cinematography are peppered with such references.

Working on L’Argent in my early 20’s I was very struck by this from the Notes: “The future of cinematography belongs to a new race of young solitaries who will shoot films by putting their last cent into it and not let themselves be taken in by the material routines of the trade.” This might seem to contradict the Renaissance notion of apprenticeship to which you refer.

Bresson was certainly a sceptic about conventional film education and I also wonder if there is a distinction between the apprenticeship of a director and that of a cameraman. It’s interesting, too, that technologies have subsequently emerged which might truly allow “young solitaries” to go forth and create with real independence. I suspect, however, that Bresson would not be hugely impressed with much contemporary, low-budget production.

Bresson, like many other filmmakers on both sides of the Atlantic, worked repeatedly with some collaborators. Some of those who worked as his assistants — and perhaps Louis Malle is the most conspicuous example — went on to success as directors. However, his influence on their work is probably clearer in terms of sensibility than in terms of their pursuit of a Bressonian conception of ‘Cinematography’.

What did I learn? That filmmaking is bloody difficult but profoundly worthwhile. That it is not a profession to be entered into, or to be conducted, casually, or in search of something outside the work itself. That serious intent does not equate with sombreness. And perhaps, above all, that process should take precedence over product.

At one point, it seemed that La Genèse would be made before L’Argent. It was also possible that La Genèse would be made in a language other than French. These circumstances meant that I had already been invited to return for La Genèse.


  1. Guillaume des Forêts: Jacques, Quatre nuits d’un rêveur and a Judge in L’Argent.
  2. In the Samuels interview, Bresson states that he “likes exercise for its own sake,” which is why he views his films as “attempts” rather than “accomplishments.”

  3. Jonathan Hourigan, “On Two Deaths and Three Births — The Cinematography of Robert Bresson”, Stills Magazine, Autumn 1981, pp. 27-38.

  4. Terrence Rafferty, “The Austerity Campaign That Never Ended”, New York Times, July 4, 2004.
  5. Kent Jones, L’Argent, BFI Modern Classics, BFI, 1999, pp. 35, 23.
  6. Robert Bresson, Notes on Cinematography, Editions Gallimard, 1975.
  7. Jérôme Larcher, “Ce que l’on voit dans la caméra: Entretien avec Emmanuel Machuel”, Cahiers du cinéma: Hommage Robert Bresson, February 2000, p.16.
  8. Philippe Arnaud, Robert Bresson, Paris: Cahiers du cinéma, 1986, p. 161.

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 8 / August 2004 Interviews   cinematography   film history   film style   french cinema   people_bresson   robert bresson