Robert Bresson

Robert Bresson began as a painter and, while he would rarely practice the art, it was a guiding force in the development of his unique film style. In a quote from a late interview with Michel Ciment after the release of his final film, L’Argent (1982), Bresson provides some interesting insight into his motivation for setting down the brush.

I haven’t painted for a long time. I believe that painting is over. There is nowhere to go. I don’t mean after [Pablo] Picasso, but after Cézanne. He went to the brink of what could not be done. Others may paint because they are of a different generation, but I felt very early on that I must not continue. When I stopped, it was horrible. At first, cinema was only a stop-gap, to occupy my mind. It was the right choice, I think, because cinema can go beyond painting. [… It] is tomorrow’s writing or painting, with two kinds of ink, one for the eye, one for the ear. (1)

While Cézanne was the one who showed Bresson painting was over, I believe he was also a key influence on the shape that Bresson’s film style took. The purpose of this article is to trace out this thought by comparing the similar goals Cézanne and Bresson had for their arts, and the parallels that can be found between the respective styles both created. A final brief note on the similarities of the artists’ lives will round out the discussion.

The payoff will be to shed more light on the artistic influences on Bresson and, more important, to achieve a better understanding of what Bresson was trying to accomplish with his unique “cinematography”. By comparing Bresson with Cézanne we more clearly see the challenges the filmmaker faced in differentiating film from the other arts, particularly painting, and how Bresson provided the foundation for “tomorrow’s writing or painting” by using Cézanne’s style as a compass.

Communicating Sensations Directly

Cézanne and Bresson both began their careers facing similar foes: the style of painting, typified by Jean Baptiste Dominique Ingres, that dominated the salons and the style of films that dominated movie screens. Even late in his life, Cézanne would hold the classicist Ingres as “only a very small painter” (2) and denigrate those who along with him “deny nature or copy it with their minds all made up, and look for style in the imitation of the Greeks and Romans” (3). Likewise, Bresson would criticize the films of his time as following a similar classicism: “Films are at the stage of academic painting. [William] Bouguereau’s ‘Siege of Paris’, where one seems to be looking at soldiers in some movie action they have learnt.” (4)

New movements sprung up to challenge these staid styles in various forms, such as Impressionism and Post-Impressionism in painting, and Neo-Realism and the New Wave in film, but both Cézanne and Bresson found themselves as outsiders even in relation to these vanguard movements. They were pursuing very unique paths.

What both Cézanne and Bresson wanted was to express as perfectly as possible the unique sensations impressed upon them by nature. With this statement, it makes sense to see Cézanne as part of the Impressionist movement. The Impressionists wanted to objectively show the real world as it presented itself to the viewer in the immediate moment, and so they left the studio for the open sky, loosened their brushwork and took on more everyday subjects.

They tried to catch the prismatic character of natural light by using spectrum colors evenly and in small touches so that they blend[ed] optically when seen from the right distance. (5)

But while the movement partook of scientific approaches to optics and it claimed objectivity, the subjective was also emphasized. A painting wasn’t simply a photograph, but visual impressions of a moment coming from a single person in a single place at a single moment in time. Hence, Claude Monet’s touch looks much different from Claude Renoir’s or Camille Pissarro’s.

Much of the Impressionists’ goals appealed to Cézanne and he was certainly a part of the movement, but always somewhat uncomfortably.

He wanted to make “something solid and enduring” out of Impressionism, which seemed to him to lack simplicity, grandeur and, especially, that sense of underlying structural unity that can transform into a whole even the most fragmentary view. (6)

Along with this was Cézanne’s ongoing concern with interacting with the great art of the past. (7) This tension between painting directly from nature but in a structured way is seen in Cézanne’s letters to Emile Bernard:

I progress very slowly, for nature reveals herself to me in very complex ways; and the progress needed is endless. One must look at the model and feel very exactly; and also express oneself distinctly and with force. (8)

Get to the heart of what is before you and continue to express yourself as logically as possible. (9)

Let us go forth to study beautiful nature, let us try to free our minds from them, let us strive to express ourselves according to our personal temperament. Time and reflection, moreover, modify little by little our vision, and at last comprehension comes to us. (10)

This strong commitment to expressing his sensations from a close observation of nature, sensations that had been reflected on and communicated in a direct, forceful way was the catalyst that would shape the unique style of Cézanne, particularly his parallel brushstroke, his palette and his attempt to achieve a simple, balanced order.

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Based on Bresson’s own proclaimed goals in his filmmaking, we could also identify him with the Impressionist movement. This is one of the most striking features of Bresson: that the whole film is a constant discovery, each new image striking our eye in a fresh way; the impression unfolds before us. Another key feature of Bresson’s films is how he moved out of the studio and shot outdoors or on location. Likewise, as Impressionism has the objective/subjective paradox, where the painter tries to paint nature, but is as they see it, so in Bresson’s films we get the feeling that we are watching something completely objective, where the camera just happened to be, but strangely subjective and controlled by a deeper force. Indeed, this feeling that Bresson is first and foremost going after a feeling is apparent everywhere in his interviews and writings. There are succinct statements such as the admonition to himself in Notes sur le cinématographe (Notes on the Cinematographer): “Shooting. Stick exclusively to impressions, to sensations. No intervention of intelligence which is foreign to these impressions and sensations.” (11) There are also more elaborated explanations, such as his conversation with Paul Schrader:

I don’t think so much of what I do when I work, but I try to feel something, to see without explaining, to catch it as near as I can – that’s all. […] Making people feel how I feel. The most important and the most real is my way of feeling – to make people have the same sensation that I have in front of things. (12)

Or talking to Michel Ciment at the end of his career:

I seek not description but vision. A sense of motion comes from building a series of visions and fitting them together. It is not really sayable in words. Increasingly, what I am after – and with L’Argent it became almost a working method – is to communicate the impressions I feel. It is the impression of a thing and not the thing itself that matters. The real is something we make for ourselves. Everyone has their own. There is the real and there is our version of it. (13)

This core desire to communicate impressions is even used as an interpretive framing device at the beginning of Pickpocket (1959). (14)

However, if Bresson’s films convey strong impressions, these also feel like very well-organized, structured impressions. And it is here we find the benefit of comparing Bresson with Cézanne and the unique style he forged, instead of pursuing points of contact with other Impressionists or even Post-Impressionists. Just as Cézanne told Bernard to “get to the heart of what is before you and continue to express yourself as logically as possible”, so Bresson tried

not to shoot a film in order to illustrate a thesis, or to display men and women confined to their external aspect, but to discover the matter they are made of. To attain that “heart of the heart” which does not let itself be caught either by poetry, or by philosophy, or by drama. (15)

Of course, the challenge was how to get to the heart but still convey that mystery in a direct, logical way. “Your imagination will aim less at events than at feelings, while wanting these latter to be as documentary as possible.” (16) Bresson, like Cézanne, was struggling how to convey the subjective experience of nature while remaining true to nature.

Following Nature

The answer to this struggle was found in giving attention to nature itself, which provided the means for developing the personal expression. For Cézanne, one could begin with the great masters of the past, but had to move onto nature itself and, after spending time there, one would come full circle to understanding the great art of the past. Again, his advice to Bernard:

Yes, I approve of your admiration for the strongest of the Venetians; we praise Tintoretto [Jacopo Comin]. Your need to find a moral, an intellectual point of support in works, which assuredly will never be surpassed, keeps you constantly on the qui vive, incessantly on the search for the means, only dimly perceived, which will surely lead you, in front of nature, to sense your own means of expression; and on the day you find them, be convinced you will rediscover without effort, in front of nature, the means employed by the four or five great ones in Venice. (17)

Indeed, this was the path that Bresson followed, leaving the world of cinema he found himself in and turning to nature as he saw it.

You have to come face to face with the new. That’s very important to me. Novelty and nature. Not the natural. Nature. I want moments like that to create something within me and what is created is what I want to commit to film. I always want that to be something new. I have great faith in beauty, but beauty is only beauty when it is new. (18)

By looking to nature, Cézanne and Bresson found the means to present the heart of nature through their own sensations, manifest in their unique styles that appear at once natural and also strongly contrived. In the best of Cézanne’s paintings, the whole is organized so well it feels natural, but a new natural that has been brought forth by something other than nature, the artist. It is the same in Bresson. Particularly in his late films, when his cinematography was at its most developed, such as L’Argent, the viewer feels they inhabit a world of its own but one that follows the rhythm of nature. These feelings when encountering Cézanne and Bresson are profound because what both were trying to do, again, is get at something deeper than just a photographic reproduction of nature; it was the heart, or one could say truth, of nature. As Bresson commented: “I am looking for truth. Or the impression of truth.” (19) There is a big difference between wanting to show nature and show one’s sensations/impressions from meditating on nature. The latter entails an encounter between the I and the Other where the Other impresses the I and the I transforms the Other by expressing this encounter. It is at once a very mystical yet a very natural thing (for isn’t it just nature being taken in through the senses of a natural animal that has its origin in nature?). The problem is that conveying such an encounter can often be sloppy, and what Cézanne and Bresson found was the need to drastically simplify and organize their respective styles in order to convey directly, logically, these dynamic sensations.

The Uniqueness of Cinema

In discussing the parallels of Cézanne and Bresson, it is clear that they had similar goals in their art. But obviously they were working in different mediums and, therefore, we should expect that while their styles took on a similar appearance there is no one-to-one correspondence, for the materials of the medium are very different.

As we have seen, Bresson left painting and found in cinema an alternative but one he had to help define. What was this new art form called cinema? Bresson had with the camera the ability to perfectly photograph the world:

What no human eye is capable of catching, no pencil, brush, pen of pinning down, your camera catches without knowing what it is, and pins it down with a machine’s scrupulous indifference. (20)

This perfect photographic reality dictates the job of the cinematographer for Bresson:

Because you do not have to imitate, like painters, sculptors, novelists, the appearance of persons and objects (machines do that for you), your creation or invention confines itself to the ties you knot between the various bits of reality caught. (21)

This image of the filmmaker as weaver is essential to Bresson’s goals because the problem of the camera is that its mechanical nature, its “scrupulous indifference”, prevents him from conveying the real that is his impressions.

Two sorts of real: (1) The crude real recorded as it is by the camera; (2) what we call real and see deformed by our memory and some wrong reckonings. Problem. To make what you see be seen, through the intermediary of a machine that does not see it as you see it. (22)

As we have seen, it was these latter impressions of the “real” that Bresson wanted to communicate and this helps to explain why Bresson held “cinema”, as he called it, in such low esteem, because it confines itself to the first form of reality, that crude record of the camera unmediated by the artist:

I think that the disparity is situated here especially: cinema copies life, or photographs it, while as for me, I recreate life starting from elements in as natural, as crude a state as possible. (23)

The problem with cinema is that it does not make anything new, and thus Bresson sees cinema as simply documentary records of how a certain thing was carefully prepared and acted in year X. To merely reproduce nature is actually to disrespect nature, for nature by its very nature produces new things. Hence, the artist’s encounter with nature must make a new creation, not a mere copy.

Robert Bresson directing on location for Lancelot du Lac

As Bresson’s experience with film grew, he realized more and more that the art of the cinematographer was not restricted only to the knotting of bits of reality on film into the unique impression of the artist, but that sound was also an essential feature, and that the real goal of the cinematographer was the orchestration of the counterpoint of image and sound into a fresh composition that conveyed the artist’s sensations taken from nature.

What we take in through our eyes and ears has come out of two machines which are said to reproduce perfectly. But one of these is only capable of representing things in a misleading fashion, via the lie that is photography. While the other produces a truthful representation of the elements that constitute sound. How can one ignore this dichotomy, that one is true and the other false? From this starting point, you must work hard not always knowing where you’re headed to achieve what I think cinematographic writing should encompass, which is the indefinable combination of the aural and the visual. (24)

When we look at Bresson’s work as a whole, we can see it as an evolving process of trying to figure out how to avoid the lifeless, copied reality of cinema and “capture the feeling aroused by what I see before me at the moment it occurs” (25), thus creating true art by Bresson’s definition. (26) “My films are attempts, strivings. They are striving towards something that I know to be the final truth of the cinematographer.” (27) The unique style that Bresson developed is the result of these constant attempts, and it parallels the style Cézanne developed to accomplish similar goals of capturing the reality of an encounter with nature and communicating these sensations in a clear, direct way, while taking into account the differences in medium. I turn now to a brief discussion of this similarity in style.


Primary to the work of Bresson is improvisation: “For me, improvisation is at the base of creation in cinema. But it is true also that, for a work so complicated, it is necessary to have a base, a solid base.” (28) As we noted above, for Bresson this is what distinguishes cinematography from cinema and what makes the former an art. Whereas cinema simply presents a copy of something photographed in the past, cinematography attempts to capture the spontaneous present:

I try not to think about what I’m going to be doing the next day. It’s no different from painting: a painter doesn’t know what his next brush stroke is going to be. He doesn’t know that. If a painter could […] Art cannot exist without surprise or without, without […] without change. If a painter knew exactly what his canvas was going to look like when he was finished, instead of painting a picture, he would paint something amorphous, vacuous, uninteresting. […] I want to be spontaneous. I want spontaneity, the present. It’s not the past or future, it’s the present, now. (29)

Bresson seems to have drawn inspiration from Cézanne himself for this method:

But when you start shooting, it is important to forget everything you know, make yourself empty and naked before your will. Cézanne used to say, “I paint, I work. I am free of thought.” Cinema has got some way to go. Let it! (30)

But, like Cézanne, Bresson did not simply want to create art out of nothing. As he said above, “It is necessary to have a base, a solid base” and it is clear from other conversations with Bresson that he placed much importance on having a clear idea of where he was headed but, when it came time to actually film, what was needed was intuition rather than storyboards. Both Cézanne and Bresson in their work display spontaneity, but a reflected spontaneity. (31)


One of the key methods that provided for this structured, reflected spontaneity, and I think the most important point of contact between Cézanne and Bresson, is the mature brushwork of Cézanne. This famous technique of uniform, parallel brushstrokes applied evenly over the canvas was Cézanne’s philosopher’s stone:

Though deceptively simple to the eye, Cézanne’s constructive-stroke paintings were treasured by his fellow painters above all; perhaps only they were equipped to realize the extent to which these works transformed the spontaneous broken brushwork employed by many of the Impressionists into one of an enduring and disciplined logic. (32)

This technique gave Cézanne’s paintings a consistency and unity that combined improvisation with a solid structure, allowing him to convey his impressions of nature in an ordered way.

Bresson developed an analogous “brushstroke” to give his films similar structure, while allowing for spontaneity. This was done foremost through Bresson’s consistent camerawork and editing.

To set up a film is to bind persons to each other and to objects and looks. (33)

An image must be transformed by contact with other images as is a color by contact with other colors. A blue is not the same blue beside a green, a yellow, a red. No art without transformation. (34)

For Bresson, the importance of the image is in its relationship to what comes before and after. This fact shapes his camera work, both his choice of lenses and camera movement. Since it is the relationship that matters, Bresson simplifies his images and tries to make each one un-picturesque so as not to distract the viewer from making the necessary connections. He primarily does this by flattening the image.

I like to start with a flat expression, as flat as possible, so that the expression comes when all the shots are put together. The more flat it is when I am shooting, the more expressive it is edited. (35)

Still Life with Fruit Dish (Paul Cézanne, 1879-80)

The flattened image is further simplified by using only one lens, no zooms and placing the camera “at the same distance as the eye in real life.” (36) Likewise, camera movement is restricted to very simple movements, mostly pans, that also parallel what a natural eye could take in by moving the neck. (37) Just as Cézanne’s parallel brushstroke method created an even texture where each part shared with all the others, indeed, found its identity in relation to the others, so Bresson builds up his entire film out of individual images or “strokes”. In both artists you feel that each stroke is dependent on all the others in a tapestry that would unravel if one were removed. Such a feeling is summarized by Bresson himself in two comments on Cézanne: “Equality of all things. Cézanne painting with the same eye and the same soul a fruit dish, his son, the Montagne Sainte-Victoire.” (38) “Cézanne: ‘At each touch I risk my life.’” (39)

However, the image is only once side of Bresson’s cinematography. The other is sound and here also we find Bresson creating a soundtrack analogous to Cézanne’s parallel brushstroke:

If you charted the way actors speak on a graph, there would be enormous variations in the intensity of their speech, whereas in my films, speech-patterns are more even. So that it all fits together properly. The same is true of the picture. I once said, I flatten the image as though I was ironing it. I do not deprive pictures of meaning, but I minimize it so that each picture loses its independence. (40)

Bresson’s use of models is essential to his purposes for numerous reasons, but here we see how their untrained voice contributes to the overall unity of the film, how their consistent intonations relate to consistent, flat shots to compose a unified whole that also is vibrantly spontaneous. And it is not only the voices of his models but sound in general in his films that creates a uniform feeling when combined with his images.

The exchanges that are produced between images and images, sounds and sounds, images and sounds, give the people and objects in your films their cinematographic life and, by a subtle phenomenon, unify your composition. (41)

It is these structural elements in sound and image, and their interrelation, that allows Bresson to convey his sensations with direct precision, the same with Cézanne’s unique brushstroke. This unique method for both artists acts as an anchor that helps to reinforce the other important elements of Cézanne’s paintings and Bresson’s films: a simple order that is balanced and unified, unique depth, rhythm and people.

Order: Simplicity, Balance and Unity

It comes as no surprise that the mature works of Cézanne and Bresson display a strong sense of order since this is a direct consequence of their common goals of trying to convey their own unique sensations in a direct way. Much of the order for both artists comes from the similar “brushstrokes” noted above. Two other key factors contributing to an overriding sense of order is the simplicity and balanced unity both artists achieve.

Much of Cézanne’s order comes from the simplicity of his paintings, particularly by his focus on essential forms while not taking the object to abstraction. This can be seen for instance in the portrait of Madame Cézanne c.1883-7, on which Gombrich comments: “His wonderful portrait of his wife shows how greatly Cézanne’s concentration on simple, clear-cut forms contributes to the impression of poise and tranquility.” (42)

Bresson achieved a similar sensation by focusing on essential forms. “See your films as a combination of lines and of volumes in movement apart from what it represents and signifies.” (43) This sounds very much like Cézanne’s comment to Bernard to

treat nature by means of the cylinder, the sphere, the cone, everything brought into proper perspective so that each side of an object or a plane is directed towards a central point (44).

Robert Bresson directing François Leterrier for Un Condamné à mort s’est échappé ou Le Vent soufflé où il veut (1956)

This focus on lines and volumes creates astonishing results for Bresson: “The poetry, if there is any, comes from tautness. […] It arises out of my simplification, which is only a more direct way of seeing people and things.” (45) Words, actions, images are all stripped to their most basic aspect in order to fit them precisely and properly into the overall structure, and the final effect is one of very strong order.

Also contributing to the strong order found in Bresson and Cézanne is the continual search for balanced unity. This thirst for balance can be seen in Cézanne’s reported comments to Ambroise Vollard when the latter, after one hundred hours sitting, asked about some blank spots:

If my study in the Louvre presently goes well, perhaps tomorrow I shall find the right tone to fill the white spaces […] If I put something there at random I should be compelled to go over the whole picture again starting at that spot. (46)

This search for balance even led Cézanne to paint still lifes that at first look clumsy and incorrect in order to create “an extraordinary sense of monumental gravity and grandeur, of everything having found its duly appointed place as in some sonorous Bach choral” (47).

Bresson is likewise willing to allow for the immediate awkward appearance to gain a stronger overall unified balance. For example, there is the wheelbarrow at the end of L’Argent with the extra squeaky wheel that sounds almost cartoonish. But such a moment of exaggeration is essential to the overall balance for Bresson.

In a film, sound and picture progress jointly, overtake each other, slip back, come together again, move forwards jointly again. What interests me, on a screen, is counterpoint. (48)

Throughout his films, you can feel Bresson trying to get the right balance of this counterpoint and, when he does, it contributes to the overall complete order one feels in the film, like listening to the voices in a Bach chorale.


One of the greatest accomplishments of Cézanne was his ability to convey depth without using the traditional illusion of perspective painting. “Cézanne did not aim at creating an illusion. He wanted rather to convey the feeling of solidity and depth, and he found he could do that without conventional draughtsmanship.” (49) Here again we find the emphasis in Cézanne creating a feeling rather than a simple appearance. Instead of drawing, Cézanne found that he could convey depth through his use of colour (50), particularly blue.

But nature for us men is more depth than surface, whence the need to introduce into our light vibrations, represented by the reds and yellows, a sufficient amount of blueness to give the feel of air. (51)

Depth was also a concern for Bresson who, as we have seen, jettisoned deep-focus camera work for flat shots that would edit well. How could depth on the screen be recreated without loosing the benefit of the flattened images? Again the answer came by giving attention to the dynamics of sound and image in interaction.

Bresson: “I was slow to realize that sound defines space on film. A voice treated like a sound effect seems to give the screen an extra dimension. […] It gives the screen depth, it makes characters seem tangible. It makes it appear that one might walk amongst them.” Ciment: “Is your interest in sound the reason why there is so little depth of field in your films?” Bresson: “Maybe. But also because I use only one lens. I like to stand the camera at the same distance as the eye in real life. Which is why, in my films, the background is sometimes out of focus. Which is unimportant because once again it is the sound which gives a sense of distance and perspective.” (52)

Bresson finding depth in sound was as unusual as Cézanne finding depth in colour, but it worked and worked marvellously, although this magnificent accomplishment is diminished for both artists when their works are seen out of context, Cézanne’s paintings in reproductions and Bresson’s films outside of a cinema with a well-equipped sound system.


Another difficulty Cézanne faced was the possibility that his uniform brushwork and his attention to essential, basic forms could drain the picture of any vibrant rhythm and movement. However, again he overcame this brilliantly by studying the works of the great masters such as Peter Paul Rubens, Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin and Baroque art to discover “an inner, generative rhythm within a motif […] of reciprocal curves and configurations” (53). This is most apparent in his great still lifes and late portraits.

Bresson’s severe formal structure – in his editing, camerawork and sound – also faced the challenge of feeling too banal, empty of any generative rhythm. This need for rhythm was well noted by Bresson: “The omnipotence of rhythms. Nothing is durable but what is caught up in rhythms. Bend content to form and sense to rhythms.” (54) There were three key ways he was able to create rhythm in his films: editing, repetition, sound. Bresson’s editing, especially in his later work, hardly draws attention to itself by neither being too rapid like much of today’s films nor too slow with lots of long takes. It has the feeling of a wave that continues the same motion but is gradually moving with the tide. Like Cézanne’s brushstrokes, the editing provides a consistent rhythm. However, more dynamic rhythms are created by repetitions with subtle variety. “All those effects you can get from repetition (of an image, of a sound).” (55) We especially see this in Bresson’s use of doors and his “establishing shots”, such as focusing on the feet of a character before we see them. But it is not only in repeated images but in repeated movements by characters, particularly in their coming and going and in their “looks” at each other which give the film a certain vitality. Third, it is again with sound that Bresson achieves his most unique effects. “The noises must become music.” (56) The noises create their own unique rhythm for the film when combined with the editing and repetition. So, within an apparent stillness, even banality, there is a feeling underneath of surging movement, just as in as in Cézanne’s paintings.


In the 1890s, Cézanne executed a number of paintings of local peasants that rank among the greatest portraits of all time. The magic of these portraits is that Cézanne was able to use his strong sense of form and shape, coupled with his consistent, organizing brushstroke, to actually bring out the humanity of the subject, at the same time avoiding a negative rigidity. For example, his “Woman with a Coffee Pot” is dominated by verticals, giving the picture a stately strength that parallels the dignity of the sitter.

“Cardplayers” (Paul Cézanne, 1890-1892)

While there is a superficial mask-like quality to these portraits, there is something conjured up from within them that makes us feel their humanity more than the ultra-slick portraits of Ingres. It is here that we find one point of intersection with Bresson who was, of course, well known for his use of non-actors as “models”. For Bresson one of the key problems with actors was that they “effect projection”. “That is his movement: he projects himself outside. While your non-actor character must be absolutely closed, like a container with a lid. Closed.” (57) Like Cézanne, Bresson keeps the surface of his people general, almost blank, another element of simplicity that allows for the more direct communication of the object being sensed.

A final portrait I would mention is Cézanne’s “Cardplayers” at the Barnes Foundation. In this painting, Cézanne displayed best what he learned from Chardin about genre paintings, that “novel transformation of casual genre figures and scenes into paintings of meticulous and motionless absorption” (58). In this painting, we are drawn into the scene by Cézanne’s finely executed brushwork, his perfect composition and his objective, humane rendering of the players. This strong feeling of absorption is also felt in Bresson’s films, accomplished by conscious effort: “Draw the attention of the public (as we say that a chimney draws).” (59)

Similarities in Life

We have seen how parallels can be drawn between the goals and methods of Cézanne and Bresson. Both wanted to convey the unique sensations they had from nature as directly as possible. Bresson had turned away from painting because he felt that Cézanne had already reached the end of what painting could do. Turning to film, he found it had undiscovered potential, but like Cézanne he had to fight the sterile status quo. His unique film style is a testament to this fight and, hopefully, I have shown how his style mirrors that of Cézanne in its sensitivity to nature and sensations, while expressing itself in a logical, ordered way, all the while taking into consideration the differences in media.

The final parallel I would like to draw between Cézanne and Bresson is in their personal lives. Both avoided mixing their life and their art. Cézanne:

I thought one could do good painting without attracting attention to one’s private life. – Certainly an artist wishes to raise himself intellectually as much as possible, but the man must remain obscure. (60)

Bresson: “Must one look at the life of someone to judge his work? This is his work. And that is his life.” (61)

Likewise, both were very reticent to discuss their art in the abstract. Their methods came out of attending to nature and wrestling with their art. This becomes especially apparent in Cézanne’s letters to Emile Bernard where he continually avoids theory and tries to talk Bernard into looking to nature. Likewise, Bresson favoured secrecy and avoided too much theorizing that did not arise from actual practice:

I believe that film work takes a lot of concentration, and, what is more, I don’t think it’s good to talk about yourself or about what you’re doing. It is very difficult to explain to others something which you can’t explain to yourself. (62)

Finally, there is the solitary aspect of these magnificent artists. Of course Cézanne seemed at times to want to style himself the hermit, but there is also a strong sense that he simply felt he was working alone, particularly in his late life. The words of Rainer Maria Rilke in a letter to his wife capture this perfectly:

When you see Chardin’s portraits of himself, you think he must have been a queer old lone wolf. Perhaps tomorrow I’ll tell you to what an extent and how sadly this was the case with Cézanne. I know a few things from his last years when he was old and shabby and children followed him everyday on his way to his studio, throwing stones at him as if at a stray dog. But inside, way inside, he was marvellously beautiful, and every once in a while he would furiously shout something absolutely glorious at one of his rare visitors. You can imagine how that happened. (63)

Robert Bresson was similarly always an outsider in the world of film, acknowledged by many but followed (and funded) by few. This isolated position was apparent early on, even after making Pickpocket, when he was asked in an interview, “Do you feel alone?”, and he sadly replied, “I feel very alone, but I don’t derive any pleasure from that feeling.” (64) The situation did not improve because Bresson only released eight films in the next twenty-four years and was silent from 1983 to his death in 1999, even though he had projects he wanted to do such as his Genesis.


  1. Michel Ciment, “I Seek Not Description But Vision: Robert Bresson on L’Argent”, in James Quandt (Ed.), Robert Bresson (Toronto: Toronto International Film Festival Group, 1998), p. 509.
  2. Paul Cézanne, Letters, fourth edition, John Rewald (Ed.), translated by Marguerite Kay (Oxford: Bruno Cassier, 1976), p. 305.
  3. Mary Tompkins Lewis, Cézanne (London: Phaidon Press, 2000), pp. 28-9.
  4. Robert Bresson, Notes on the Cinematographer, translated by Jonathan Griffin (Copenhagen: Green Integer, 1997), p. 110.
  5. Hugh Honour and John Fleming, A World History of Art, seventh edition (London: Laurence King Publishing, 2005), p. 703.
  6. Ibid, p. 729.
  7. See Lewis, p. 198.
  8. Cézanne, p. 302.
  9. Ibid, pp. 303-4.
  10. Ibid, p. 315.
  11. Bresson, p. 42.
  12. Paul Schrader, “Robert Bresson, Possibly”, in Quandt, pp. 493-5.
  13. Ciment, p. 506.
  14. In an interview with France Roche and François Chalais for Cinépanorama in1960. At the time of the release of the film, Bresson explained, “I wanted people to get a feeling of the atmosphere that surrounds a thief, that particular atmosphere that makes people feel anxious and uncomfortable.”
  15. Bresson, p. 47.
  16. Ibid, p. 25.
  17. Cézanne, pp. 307-8.
  18. Robert Bresson, interview by Christian Defaye, Télévision Suisse Romande – Spécial Cinéma, 1983.
  19. Robert Bresson, interview by Alain Bévérini, TF1 International, 1983.
  20. Bresson, Notes, p. 36.
  21. Ibid, p. 74.
  22. Ibid, pp. 78-9.
  23. Jean-Luc Godard and Michel Delahaye, “The Question”, in James Quandt, p. 474.
  24. Robert Bresson, interview by Alain Bévérini.
  25. Ibid.
  26. One could argue from Bresson’s own words that in order to understand him, what he is trying to do and communicate, it is essential to see all of his films, if possible. “Thus the other day someone asked me the question, ‘Do you believe that a single film of yours could affect people?’ It can, perhaps, affect some people, but I do not believe that a single painting by Cézanne has made people understand or love Cézanne, has make them feel as Cézanne did. It takes a great many paintings!” Godard and Delahaye, p. 458.
  27. Ibid.
  28. Ibid, p. 455.
  29. Robert Bresson, interview by Christian Defaye.
  30. Ciment, p. 500.
  31. “Now, I believe very much in intuitive work. But in that which has been preceded by a long reflexion.” Godard and Delahaye, p. 456.
  32. Lewis, p. 208.
  33. Bresson, Notes, 23.
  34. Ibid, p. 20.
  35. Schrader, p. 497.
  36. Ciment, p. 500.
  37. It should be noted again that this style develops in Bresson and thus in earlier films more variety in camera work can be seen, although still very little compared to mainstream films.
  38. Bresson, Notes, p. 136.
  39. Ibid.
  40. Ciment, p. 501.
  41. Bresson, Notes, pp. 54-5.
  42. E. H. Gombrich, The Story of Art, sixteenth edition (London: Phaidon Press, 1995), p. 542.
  43. Bresson, Notes, p. 90.
  44. Cézanne, p. 301.
  45. Ciment, p. 503.
  46. Quoted in Lewis, p. 294.
  47. Hugh Honour and John Fleming, A World History of Art, seventh edition (London: Laurence King Publishing, 2005), p. 730.
  48. Ciment, p. 505.
  49. Gombrich, p. 544.
  50. “Color must reveal every interval in depth […]” Cézanne quoted in Honour and Fleming, p. 732.
  51. Cézanne, 301. It is interesting that Bresson makes a comment about Cézanne’s use of blue in reference to its ability to unify the composition. He draws a parallel with his editing: “Cutting. Phosphorus that wells up suddenly from your model, floats around them and binds them to the objects (blue of Cézanne, grey of El Greco).” Bresson, Notes, p. 86.
  52. Ciment, p. 500.
  53. Lewis, pp. 230-2.
  54. Bresson, Notes, p. 68.
  55. Ibid, p. 58.
  56. Ibid, p. 30.
  57. Godard and Delahaye, p. 466.
  58. Lewis, p. 267.
  59. Bresson, Notes, p. 49.
  60. Cézanne, p. 5.
  61. Godard and Delahaye, p. 471.
  62. Robert Bresson, interview by Mario Beunat, Page cinema, 1962.
  63. In Gayford, Martin and Karen Wright (Eds), The Penguin Book of Art Writing (London: Viking, 1998), p. 295. Rilke’s comment on Rodin’s sculpture could be applied to Bresson, that it “was an art ‘to help a time whose misfortune was that all its conflicts lay in the invisible’” (p. 721).
  64. Robert Bresson, interview by France Roche and François Chalais, Cinépanorama, 1960.

About The Author

Peter Doebler is currently doing independent research on the relationship of the arts at Trinitiy College, Dublin. He holds an M.A. from Wheaton College in Biblical Studies. His primary research interests include Silent Cinema, 1930s Japanese film and early film theory.

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