In Robert Bresson’s Words: Life as a Stage and Life as a Dream

Two types of films: those that employ the resources of the theater (actors, direction etc…) and use the camera in order to reproduce; those that employ the resources of cinematography and use the camera to create.

Robert Bresson, Notes on the Cinematographer

Robert Bresson, a French director who gave us many masterpieces, Au Hasard Balthazar, Pickpocket and Diary of A Country Priest, to name a few, and influenced many great filmmakers and screenwriters like Andrei Tarkovsky, Michael Haneke and Paul Schrader. Bresson being one of the most important French directors who ever lived, there is no doubt that his understanding of cinema has great value. His distinction between two types of films, as quoted above, can help us distinguish important aspects in the art of filmmaking; we can understand better Bresson’s own work and films created by other great directors across the globe. When one speaks of the films in which the resources of the theater are employed, the typical director who utilizes those means is Ingmar Bergman.

Robert Bresson

A former theater director, who continued to direct plays while he was a film director, used the potential of his actors to the fullest extent and created an universe in which the profound life’s questions are explored through characters’ monologues, their interactions etc. One must note the immaculate Bergman’s direction as well, which created such stunning works of art like Fanny and Alexander. Although Bergman’s collaboration with the cinematographer Sven Nykvist was of great importance, and Nykvist’s camera transfigures the world and creates a new language of film, the essential role in Bergman’s films belongs to the actors and the director himself. Each of the lead actors plays an Orestes and an Electra of a bleak and often brutal world which the director envisioned, and in the end created.

Another great director who can be placed in this first category, although this case is open to debate, is Stanley Kubrick. He is the one who “used the resources of theater” primarily via his role as a director, and on this ground, he deserves the status of an auteur, although he did not write his own movies, and even worked as a director for hire when he made his Spartacus. Kubrick used static shots in a remarkable and unsurpassed way, his iconic director status and the role he had when he made his movies can be compared to the role of a demiurge, the one who creates works of art solely with his artistic vision, talent and remarkable capabilities. One may argue that the use of special effects in 2001: A Space Odyssey shows that he used the technology, and thus the “resources of a camera”, broadly speaking, so his films can come into being, but it was his directing talent and role in the filmmaking process which were crucial when his films were made, so I would say that he still belongs to the first category, of an auteur director.

When we speak of the famous directors who “employ the resources of cinematography and use the camera to create”, the first who comes to mind is Andrei Tarkovsky. In his long shots, the camera is used, in Ingmar Bergman’s words to “capture life as a reflection, life as a dream.” Tarkovsky was the one who employed the resources of cinematography to portray his vision of life, to depict it is a dream, its fleeting transience. This is particularly vivid in his semi-autobiographical film The Mirror, which works as a visual poem and portrays life as an illusion which cannot be fully grasped, only experienced like a dream.

This is the Apollonian principle Nietzsche noticed when he discussed Attic tragedy, it almost seems as if god provokes visions in the artist, and the cinematic poet finds a source of his creation in dreams. This cannot possibly be portrayed solely by the resources of the theater, and camera must be used to put the poet’s visions into life. Contrary to the popular opinion, I will argue that in his last film The Sacrifice, when Tarkovsky attempted to create a Bergmanesque film, Tarkovsky combined the theatrical cinematic resources, while trying to stay true to his own vision which relies on cinematography, he created something which is out of place at certain moments.

When Tarkovsky tried to combine both his technique and Bergman’s, the result was not a superior achievement. When the techniques of two cinematic giants, the one who relies on theatrical techniques, and the other who uses camera to portray life as a dream attempt to merge, the result can seem unsatisfactory. While the resources of cinematography create an illusion, it is an Apollonian principle Nietzsche identified in Attic tragedy, the “resources of theater” are similar to Euripides’ dramas, which brought the common man on stage, and started to debate his destiny. One must decide whether he will depict life as a dream, or life as a stage.

2 responses to “In Robert Bresson’s Words: Life as a Stage and Life as a Dream”

  1. It seems to me that dear mister Bresson is too severe to his friend Tarkovsky, who was already ill making The Sacrifice.
    Besides Tarkovsky rejected 50 minutes of shot material.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Well, putting the irony aside, I believe that it is not severity, but a praise to Mr. Tarkovsky, who decided to let Bergman’s influence change his own approach to filmmaking. This was not a coincidence, since both of them were thematically similar, in the widest sense of the word; both of them dealt with important questions of human existence. I believe that Tarkovsky should have stayed completely true to himself, to his own method, and one may argue that he did, but a significant change cannot be overlooked. I have seen “Offret” only once, but there is a certain surplus of dramatic tension between characters and the emphasis on the dialogues in Bergman’s style, which seems out of place in a Tarkovsky film. You can argue that Solaris has this moments, it does, but in “Offret” it is different.


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