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Robert Bresson: The Face

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Megan Layton

on 28 April 2010

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Transcript of Robert Bresson: The Face

“It is Bresson, in a quite different way, who makes touch an object of view in itself. Bresson’s visual space is fragmented and disconnected, but its parts have, step by step, a manual continuity. The hand, then, takes on a role in the image which goes infinitely beyond the sensory-motor demands of the affects, and which, in the area of perception, becomes the mode of construction of a space which is adequate to the decisions of the spirit.” (12) “Beyond the Movement Image,” from Cinema 2, Deleuze and Guattari

Robert Bresson
Patron Saint of Cinema

On Cinema’s Automatic Characters:

“With Bresson, the automaton is pure, as bereft of ideas as of feelings, reduced to the automatism of segmented daily gestures, but endowed with autonomy: this is the Vigilambulist, in contrast to the theatre actor. And it is precisely the automaton, petrified in this way, that thought seizes from the very outside, as the unthinkable in thought. The question is very different from that of distancing; it is the questions of properly cinematographic automatism, and its consequences. It is the material automatism of images which produces from the outside a thought which it imposes, as the unthinkable in our intellectual automatism. The automaton is cut off from the outside world, but there is a more profound outside which will animate it.” (179) “Thought and Cinema” Cinema 2, Deleuze and Guattari
“In Bresson, it is not indirect discourse which is treated as direct, it was the opposite; it was the direct, the dialogue, which was treated as if it were reported by someone else: hence the famous Bressonian voice, the voice of the ‘model’ in opposition to the voice of the theater actor. Where the character speaks as if he were listening to his own words reported by someone else, hence achieving a literalness of the voice, cutting it off from any direct resonance, and making it produce a free indirect speech.” (279) Cinema 2, Deleuze and Guattari On Christianity in Bresson:

“A fifth character—the beast or the ass in Balthazar possessing the innocence of him who does not have to choose. The ass only knows the effect of the non-choices or choices of him, that is, the facet of events which is accomplished in bodies and wounds them, without being able to reach (but without being able to betray either) that which goes beyond execution, or spiritualness, but also the preferential union of Christ or of the man of choice.” (116) “Any-Space-Whatevers,” Cinema 1, Deleuze
Michael Chion, p. 73 “The Bressonian model talks as one listens: picking up as he can in himself what he has just said, to the extent that he seems to conclude his speech as he goes along uttering it, without giving it the chance to resonate with the partner or the public.” "NO ACTORS. (NO DIRECTING OF ACTORS.)
- Robert Bresson (“Notes on the Cinematographer”)

Model. “All face.”


Chapter 3: Faces

A face is a field that accepts some expressions and connections and neutralizes others. It is a screen and a framework. To be confronted with a face is to envision a certain range of things that could be expressed on it and to have available a certain range of things one could address to it. One sees what one might say, what one should not have said…
To find our identity in facing others is to exist and act under accusation. It is to have to provide a coherent verbal justification for movements that emanate from our body…
The face extends down the whole length of a body. The hands and fingers no longer probe, punch, and caress with the furry caterpillars, the raccoons, and the octopodsc; held at a distance from contact with any other body, they gesticulate, diagramming meaningful signals and punctuations consistent with the words set forth…
Everything animal in the body must be covered up, with clothing that extends the face—the blank surfaces of the business suit and the tailored two-piece suit of the career woman with the black holes of its buttons, the blue of deliveryman’s uniform and the white of painter’s dungarees, the uniform of a flight attendant and politician’s wife and university students, uniforms on which others are seen and where black holes of subjectivity judge and sanction. The surfaces of clothing accept some expressions and connections and neutralize others. The blank wall of a face, extended over a body, detaches the body’s skin from its pulsations, flexions, and exudations and makes it a surface for the display of meaning.
When another turns her eyes to us, she does not look into our eyes only to order them or to find the map of the landscape; her eyes seek out first the vivacity and delight of the light in our eyes which summon her forth. The gaze of another that touches us lightly and turns aside, and invokes not the glare of our gaze but the darkness our eyes harbor, refracts to us the summons of the impersonal night.
Beneath the face as a surface for signs, we see the skin in its carnality and vulnerability. We see the spasms, the wrinkles, the wounds on her skin, the urgency of her hunger, her thirst, her cold, her fever, her fear, or her despair. We are immediately afflicted with these wounds, these wants, this suffering. In our hands extended to clasp her hands, touch turns to tact and tenderness….


“What animal? The other.

I often ask myself, just to see, who I am –and who I am (following) at
the moment when, caught naked, in silence, but the gaze of an animal, for
example the eyes of a cat, I have trouble, yes, a bad time overcoming my
Whence this malaise?
I have trouble repressing a reflex dictated by immodesty. Trouble
keeping silent within me a protest against the indecency. Against the
impropriety that comes of finding oneself naked, ones’ sex exposed, stark
naked before a cat that looks at you without moving, just to see. The
impropriety of a certain animal nude before the other animal, from that
point on one might call it a kind of animalséance: the single, incomparable
and original experience of the impropriety that would come from appearing
in truth naked, in front of the insistent gaze of the animal, a benevolent or
pitiless gaze, surprised or cognizant. The gaze of a seer, visionary, or extra-
lucid blind person. It is as if I were ashamed, therefore naked in front of this
cat, but also ashamed for being ashamed. A reflected shame, the mirror of a
shame ashamed of itself, a shame that is at the same time specular,
unjustifiable, and unable to be admitted to. At the optical center of this
reflection would appear this thing—and in my eyes the focus of this
incomparable experience—that is called nudity. And about which it is
believed that it is proper to man, that is to say foreign to animals, naked as
they or, or so it is thought, without the slightest inkling of being so.

…I must make it clear from the start, the cat I am talking about is a real cat, truly, believe me, a little cat. It isn’t the figure of a cat. It doesn’t silently enter the room as an allegory for all the cats on the earth, the felines that traverse myths and religions, literature and fables. There are so many of them. The cat I am talking about does not belong to Kafka’s vast zoopoetics, something that nevertheless solicits attentions, endlessly and from a novel perspective…Nor does the cat that looks at me naked, she and no other, the one I am talking about here, belong although we are getting warmer, to Baudelaire’s family of cats, or Rilke’s, or Buber’s. Literally speaking at least, these poets’ and philosophers’ cats don’t speak…”

Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness, trans. Hazel Barnes “The Look”, part III Chapter I, section IV, (pg. 259)

“The look which the eyes manifest, no matter what kind of eyes they are, is a pure reference to myself. What I apprehend immediately when I hear the branches crackling behind me is not that there is someone there, it is that I am vulnerable, that I have a body which can be hurt…in short that I am seen.

Sartre’s other is not limited to the actual presence of another human. A No Smoking sign, crackling branches, or a creak on the stairs can make me blush. He doesn’t give the gaze of the animal the same status as gaze of the man

Sartre-To be objectified, devoured by the other’s gaze. To experience one’s own subjectivity and freedom withering in the presence of the other. The struggle for ascendancy latent in human interaction, the instability that arises from the meeting of two subjects each projecting a world. (D.H. Lawrence’s characters)
“Nowhere in a zoo can a stranger encounter the look of an animal. At most the animal’s gaze flickers and passes on…That look between animal and men…has been extinguished.”

(John Berger, taken from The Lives of Animals)


A snake came to my water-trough
On a hot, hot day, and I in pajamas for the heat
To drink there…
Someone was before me at my water-trough
And I, like a second comer, waiting.
He lifted his head from his drinking as cattle do,
And looked at me vaguely, as drinking cattle do,
And flickered his two-forked tongue from his lips,
and mused a moment.

Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity, trans. Alphonso Lingis

“To manifest oneself as a face is to impose oneself…without the intermediary of any image, in one’s nudity, that is, in one’s destitution and hunger.”


“But the other men, called free, who had dealings with us or gave us orders or even a smile—and the children and women who passed by and sometimes raised their eyes—stripped up of our human skin. We were subhuman, a gang of apes. A small inner murmur, the strength and wretchedness of a persecuted people, reminded ups of our essence as thinking creatures, but we were no longer part of the world…Our comings and goings, our sorrow and laughter, illnesses and distractions, the work of our hands and the anguish of our eyes, the letters we received from France and those accepted for our families—all that passed in parenthesis. We were beings entrapped in their species; despite all their vocabulary, beings without language…How can we deliver a message about our humanity which, form behind the bars of quotation marks, will come across as anything other than monkey talk?..."

“Bresson seems committed to an explicit religious point of view. But the difference is not as great as it appears. Bresson’s Catholicism is a language for rendering a certain vision of human action, rather than a “position” that is stated…The proof of this is that Bresson is able to say the same thing without Catholicism—in his three other films. In fact, the most entirely successful of all Bresson’s films—Un Condamné à Mort s’est Échappé one which, while it has a sensitive and intelligent priest in the background (one of the prisoners), bypasses the religious way of posing the problem. The religious vocation supplies one setting for ideas about gravity, lucidity, and martyrdom. But the drastically secular subjects of crime, the revenge of betrayed love, and solidarity imprisonment also yield the same themes.” (Susan Sontag)

“All of Bresson’s films have a common theme: the meaning of confinement and liberty. The imagery of the religious vocation and of crime are used jointly. Both lead to “the cell.”” (Susan Sontag)

Some art aims directly at arousing the feelings; some art appeals to the feelings through the route of the intelligence. There is art that involves, that creates empathy. There is art that detaches, that provokes reflection.
Great reflective art is not frigid. It can exalt the spectator, it can present images that appall, it can make him weep. But its emotional power is mediated. The pull toward emotional involvement is counterbalanced by elements in the work that promote distance, disinterestedness, impartiality. Emotional involvement is always, to a greater or lesser degree, postponed.
The contrast can be accounted for in terms of techniques or means—even of ideas. No doubt, though, the sensibility of the artist is, in the end, decisive. It is a reflective art, a detached art that Brecht is advocating when he talks about the “Alienation Effect.” The didactic aims which Brecht claimed for his theater are really a vehicle for the cool temperament that conceived those plays…

In the film, the master of the reflective mode is Robert Bresson…

Bresson’s films are often described as cold, remote, overintellectualized, geometrical. But to call a work of art “cold” means nothing more or less than to compare it (often unconsciously) to a work that is “hot.” And not all art is—or could be—hot, any more than all persons have the same temperament…

In reflective art, the form of the work of art is present in an emphatic way.
The effect of the spectator’s being aware of the form is to elongate or to retard the emotions. For, to the extent that we are conscious of form in a work of art, we become somewhat detached; our emotions do not respond in the same way as they do in real life.

Reflective art is art which, in effect imposes a certain discipline on the audience—postponing easy gratification. Even boredom can be a permissible means of such discipline. Breson's... aim, I would imagine, is not to keep hot emotions cool so that intelligence can prevail. The emotional distance typical of Bresson’s films seems to exist for a different reason altogether: because all identification with characters, deeply conceived, is an impertinence—an affront to the mystery that is human action and the human heart…
But—all claims for intellectual coolness or respect for the mystery of action laid aside—surely Brecht knew, as must Bresson, that such distancing is a source of great emotional power. It is precisely the defect of the naturalistic theater and cinema that, giving itself too readily, it easily consumes and exhausts its effects. Ultimately, the greatest source of emotional power in art lies not in any particular subject matter, however passionate, however universal. It lies in form. The detachment and retarding of the emotions; through the consciousness of form, makes them far stronger and more intense in the end…
"For him there was no doubt that we were men.” Sartre Lingis, The Face Levinas, The Dog Sontag, Reflective Art The Automaton Discourse The Beast Catholicism Confinement Touch The Look of the Animal Derrida, The Cat

Two men facing each other, eye to eye. Two cats attracting each other…


Cezanne: “At each touch I risk my life.”


The persons and the objects in your film must walk at the same pace, as companions.


“Visible parlance” of bodies, objects, houses, roads, trees, fields.

Two persons, looking each other in the eye, see not their eyes but their looks. (The reason why we get the color of a person’s eyes wrong?)


To set up a film is to bind persons to each other and to objects by looks.


Respect man’s nature without wishing it more palpable than it is.


Cinematographer’s film where the images, like the words in a dictionary, have no power and value except through their position and relation.


Emmanuel Levinas, from an interview:

“I cannot say at what moment you have the right to
be called ‘face.’ The human face is completely
different, and only afterwards do we discover the face
of an animal...”

"I often ask myself, just to see, who I am –and who I am (following) at
the moment when, caught naked, in silence, but the gaze of an animal, for
example the eyes of a cat, I have trouble, yes, a bad time overcoming my
embarrassment. " Derrida, The Animal that Therefore I am

"When another turns her eyes to us, she does not look into our eyes only to order them or to find the map of the landscape; her eyes seek out first the vivacity and delight of the light in our eyes which summon her forth. The gaze of another that touches us lightly and turns aside, and invokes not the glare of our gaze but the darkness our eyes harbor, refracts to us the summons of the impersonal night.
Beneath the face as a surface for signs, we see the skin in its carnality and vulnerability. We see the spasms, the wrinkles, the wounds on her skin, the urgency of her hunger, her thirst, her cold, her fever, her fear, or her despair. We are immediately afflicted with these wounds, these wants, this suffering. In our hands extended to clasp her hands, touch turns to tact and tenderness…." Alphonso Lingis, "Faces" from Dangerous Emotions Look, Face, Touch What about that animal sound at the beginning? A cry that escapes significagtion? Or does it resemble a human's voice? The Murders of the Rue Morgue? I posted selections from Notes by Bresson on portal, as well as the entirety of Sontag's Essay on the Reflective art of Bresson, as well as the Lingis and Derrida excerpts I shared with you today.

(Lingis Handout)
(Notes on Cinematography)

I also posted the reading assignment for THE AGE OF WIRE AND STRING. Remember Encyclopedia due next time: A good thesis statement for an English paper is…

Analytical, and not evaluative (A thesis statement shouldn’t sound like a book review. It shouldn’t judge the work based upon the success or failure of an author’s narrative techniques.)

Specific and argumentative (The best theses begin with a close, rigorous study of a very specific topic and then develop an argument based upon the investigation of that topic. Examples of good topics in The Fox would be March’s clothing, the language of consciousness, or the vacillating figurative descriptions of Henry throughout the narrative.)

About the world of the fiction and not the real world (Unless you are a historian and have ample knowledge of what life was like, in say, early twentieth century provincial England, then it is not appropriate to make any claims about the validity of a text as a representation of its time. As well, it is not appropriate to use a text as a platform to discuss how things are in the real world. We can’t ever assume that a text is striving towards realism, and as well, we cannot assume that a text is anything but a world unto itself at the time of its inception, delivered from a single, subjective point of view.)

Not about the author of the work, and makes no claims about the author’s psychology (There is a group of literary critics who have developed a rigorous method of psychoanalysis for authors via their texts, and we will leave them to their devices.)

Controversial (Your thesis statement should not be obvious, or indisputable. There should be some risk in what it claims, and it should be possible for someone to reasonably disagree with your interpretation. Ideally, your thesis statement is not something you can articulate prior to your investigation of the text. This ensures that your thesis will not be too obvious.)

Supported with quotations from the text (Quotations should not be used to summarize the text, but rather they should be used as avenues for interpretation that will validate your claim. Good quotations require explication.)
What is the point of view in Au Hasard Balthazar?
-Consider the angle of the camera, the

Is Balthazar a symbol?

How is Balthazar treated as an object (a symbol of currency, exchange, and labor) and as a subject? Foes the film suggest that he is dominant in one of these

How is the face

Marie and Balthazar?
What is the effect of Bresson’s technique of automatism? What happens when expression is limited and identification retarded? (form)
Is a “Face to Face” ethical encounter ever happen in the film?
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