Notes on Pickpocket

Video essays exist in a no man’s land between film practice and theory. They use an artistic language for academic reflections. That arguably  makes them the ideal format to bridge the divide between praxis and analysis.


French filmmaker Robert Bresson tried to bridge that gap in his own way. His thirteen terse feature films gained him renown for their almost ascetic style and uncompromising rigor. But Bresson also put pen to paper and theorized about his craft in very succinct aphorisms. (Their brevity is a nice fit for the boiled down narrative style of his films).


His Notes sur le cinématographe (1) is a gem. It offers a window into the mind of a maker who is acutely aware that every artistic choice is also an ideological one. His peculiar directing of actors (he called them his “models”, as opposed to the classic stage variety of “actors”), his emancipation of sound, his belief in minimalism to achieve maximum effect… It is all spelled out in concise yet expressive maxims.

Here’s a director who filled screens with contemplative cinema, and at the same time filled pages with contemplations on his art. This video essay tries to tie those theoretical thoughts to his artistic output. Shots and scenes from Bresson’s 1959 classic Pickpocket are overlaid with apt aphorisms from his Notes on Cinematography (2). By coupling his precise visuals to his pointed writings, Bresson’s words illuminate his film style and vice versa.


Etant donné que Robert Bresson est une véritable icône du cinéma français, on a également créé une version française de cette vidéo. Dans cette version, on a utilisé les aphorismes originaux, tels qu’ils étaient formulés par Bresson lui-même. Vous pourrez regarder la version française ici.

(1) The English version of this video essay uses Jonathan Griffin’s translation. The French version, evidently, uses excerpts from (a reprint of) the original publication:
Bresson, Robert. Notes on Cinematography. New York: Urizen Books, 1977.
Bresson, Robert. Notes sur le cinématographe. Paris: Gallimard, 1995.


(2) Because Pickpocket was made in 1959, I have only used notes from the first part of Bresson’s book. Those aphorisms were written between 1950 and 1958, prior to Pickpocket. It seemed apt to only use those notes he committed to page before directing this movie. The second part of the book contains more recent notes; those might one day provide the textual backbone for a similar essay on one of Bresson’s later films.
This video essay includes clips and music from:


Pickpocket [feature film] Dir. Robert Bresson. Compagnie Cinématographique de France, France, 1959. 75 mins.