Robert Bresson on Film Sound and Music: Part Three of “Notes On Cinematography”

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Robert Bresson Film Sound and Music

Robert Bresson’s film L’Argent uses only diegetic sound and music, or “played by visible instruments.”

Part one and two of’s coverage of Robert Bresson’s seminal cinema book “Notes on Cinematography” examined some of  Bresson’s favorite topics–the differences between cinema and theater, the meaning film images acquire through editing, and the cinematic representation of reality. Part three will delve into Bresson’s thoughts on film music and sound, which are particularly interesting in the context of Michael Haneke’s thoughts on the subject, given that Bresson is one of Haneke’s main influences.

Both directors seem to favor diegetic over non-diegetic music, but Haneke probably considers music more important to cinema. As Juliette Binoche pointed out, probably because he is an unrealized pianist, Haneke places a lot of significance on music in his films, particularly Amour, the Piano Player, or even Funny Games. The Austrian said that “music is the greatest pleasure one can indulge in,” as well as that “a film’s musicality is the decisive factor that makes it succeed or fail.”

Robert Bresson Film Sound and Music

Although Robert Bresson’s film L’Argent uses a lot of car and machine sound, it is only diegetic, or “played by visible instruments.”

Robert Bresson seems to be more sparring in his discussion of film music, and calls for independence between sound and images. Some may find that peculiar, given the powerful combination of the two. The editing relationship between sound and images created the basis for the (as Terry Gilliam called it) “technically brilliant” film La Jetee by Chris Marker, and is also the main theme and technique in Hollis Frampton’s Nostalgia. But Bresson’s thoughts on film sound and music do not mean he is against them. Instead, he seems to favor a kind of subtlety in filmmaking, an approach where instead of simultaneously assaulting and captivating every sense of the viewers, the film gives full emphasis of sight over hearing or hearing over sight. It is a good lesson for modern Hollywood which abuses sound and music like never before. In an interview right after he announced the end of his filmmaking career, Steven Soderbergh said:

Music has become another of the most abused aspects of filmmaking. I’m mystified by the direction scores have taken in the last ten years. It’s wall-to-wall—it’s the movie equivalent of the vuvuzelas from the last World Cup! I don’t understand it at all. For me, it’s ideal when you can get the music to do something that everything else isn’t doing.

Robert Bresson on Film Music and Sound

No music as accompaniment, support or reinforcement. No music at all. Except, of course, the music played by visible instruments.

Music takes up all the room and gives no increased value to the image to which it is added.

Generality of music which does not correspond to a film’s generality. Exaltation that hinders other exaltations.

To find a kinship between image, sound, and silence. To give them an air of being glad to be together, of having chosen their place. Milton: “Silence was pleased.”

Images. Like the modulations of music.

To know thoroughly what business that sound (or that image) has there.

What is for the eye must not duplicate what is for the ear.

If the eye is entirely won, give nothing or almost nothing to the ear. And vice versa, if the ear is entirely won, give nothing to the eye. One cannot be at the same time all eye and all ear.

When a sound can replace an image, cut the image of neutralize it. The ear goes more toward the within, the eye towards the outer.

A sound must never come to the help of an image, nor an image to the help of a sound.

If a sound is the obligatory complement of an image, give preponderance either to the sound or to the image. If equal, they damage or kill each other, as we say of colors.

Image and sound must not support each other, but must work each in turn through a sort of relay.

The eye solicited alone makes the ear impatient, the ear solicited alone makes the eye impatient. Use these impatiences. Power of cinematographer who appeals to the two senses in a governable way. Against the tactics of speed, of noise, set tactics of slowness, of silence.

As discussed in part one, by “cinematography” Bresson means the cinematic art rather than the work of a cameraman. Here, it seems like by “cinematographer” he means the filmmaker.

Silence, musical by an effect of resonance. The last syllable of the last word or the last noise like a held note.

Absolute silence and silence obtained by a pianissimo of notes.

The soundtrack invented silence.