Editing and Framing in Robert Bresson’s Films
Robert Bresson, one of the most highly regarded French filmmakers, created a new kind of cinema through meticulous refinement of the form’s grammatical and expressive possibilities. In his book, Robert Bresson: A Passion for Film, Tony Pipolo provides a nuanced analysis of each of Bresson’s films, elucidating Bresson’s unique style as it evolved. In the excerpt below, from the introduction, we learn about the importance of Bresson’s editing techniques. Tony Pipolo is Professor Emeritus of Film and Literature at the City University of New York.
Of all the elements of film that Bresson sought to refine, editing is perhaps the most critical, a category of rapports important not only to the rhythm of his films but to their underlying ethos. Bresson employed continuity editing, shot-countershot, and crosscutting, but they all take on an urgency that is anything but standard. Here lies the critical importance of looks in his films With fierce clarity, their effect, figuratively speaking, is to empty the frame of any static pictorial tendency and direct us to the ongoing energies of the work, to each moment’s rapport with the next. Gathering impetus befitting the surge of the narrative and its interstitial connection to form, looks are not just the eyes but also the pulse of each film, “bind[ing] persons to each other and to objects.” It is through Fontaine’s looks in A Man Escaped, including those not actually directed at an object but registering an alertness to a distant sound, that we experience the environment of the prison, attuned to every move and anticipating every cut that leads to his freedom. Looks are not the only generators of the cut, but they carry enough intensity even to penetrate and linger past a fade-out between shots. Along with hands and doors, looks achieve an iconographic status in Bresson’s work well beyond the norm.
An equally important, no less elevated convention is the elliptical cut. As early as Les Anges we see that this technique is used not only to collapse space and time in the interest of narrative economy, but as an instrument of each film’s thematic trajectory. In Les Anges key developments are elided, as if the film’s structure were ruled by the same urgency that seizes the protagonist, Anne-Marie. The moral force underlying this welding of narrative and filmic form is an important aspect of Bresson’s cinema.
Not least of the forces behind the effectiveness of editing in Bresson is the way each shot is framed to isolate an action that by its very thrust anticipates a cut. This becomes more prominent after Diary, when the style, drained of atmospheric and ornamental potential, concentrates on the primary action of a shot. Its centrality is enforced by a more exacting concern for the rightness of a camera angle and of the moment to cut, both dictated by the essence of an action and its connection to an adjacent action. The action, as implied above, may be simply the look of a protagonist so forcefully projected off screen by what Bresson called “the ejaculatory force of the eye” that it anticipates the cut. This efficient use of filmic elements creates the impression of the unrepeatability of each shot, a remarkable feature of Bresson’s work and no small contribution to its realistic dimension. Rather than depict, describe, or elaborate on action, the films are synonymous with action. A description of thirty or forty sequential shots form virtually any section of his films from the mid-1950s on would require one, two, or three transitive verbs per shot.
A Man Escaped and Pickpocket are exemplary in this respect, but even Balthazar, a more leisurely narrative with the most passive of protagonists, follows suit. The prologue, consisting of twenty-eight shots, contains twice as many actions and includes dialogue in only six shots. By this point (1966), the midriff of the body was as important as the face, since it privileges the pivotal section of the anatomy that governs movement and often displays what hands are doing. The action of the prologue is not primarily conveyed through expositional dialogue, but through each gesture, look, and action in succession.