“The things, one can express with the hands…”

– Robert Bresson

One immediately recognizes the handiwork of Kogonada in this beautifully crafted video essay he created for the Criterion Collection: a stylish supercut of close-ups of hands from Robert Bresson’s movies. The French filmmaker only made thirteen feature films in a career spanning four decades, but his ascetic style has proven timeless.

Bresson was not prone to grand gestures or operatic outbursts. His directorial style is one of restraint and self-imposed limitations. Every choice he made had meaning, and this is very clear in his use of the close-up. In the rigid framework of his movies, these close shots obtain an almost emblematic character. His close-ups of hands are perhaps the most striking example thereof, and that there are so many is no coincidence.

Another thing I was aware of was that nearly all gestures, all of our ways of talking, are mechanical. It’s true. You put your hand like this. Look. There are two pages in Montaigne about the way our hands go where we don’t want them to go. He’s a writer who isn’t really difficult. You can always read a page or two and find something. Theatre consists of well controlled gestures and words. Cinema must be something different—not controlled. It must be the equivalent of life, like any art, but certainly not copied or simulated.” – Robert Bresson (1)

Bresson has an eye for the most minimal of hand movements. In his directorial style, these suggestive gestures become meaningful vignettes of an almost ritual nature. Their mannered movements fit in perfectly with the distinct acting style Bresson favors. The performances in his movies are often described as excessively mechanical to the point of being devoid of emotion. But in Bresson’s thinking, true emotion can only originate from mechanical, unthinking activity.

… if you just tell the person to move and to talk in a monotone, it doesn’t become monotonous. It’s like a pianist who doesn’t put emotion onto his piano but waits for the emotion to come. But he waits with the most mechanical way of playing the piano. Movement has the same effect on my performers.” – Robert Bresson (2)

It’s a metaphor Bresson used more than once: comparing the process of crafting a performance to practicing a piano piece over and over. No wonder then that he uses so many close-ups of hands…

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(1) and (2) These Robert Bresson quotes are excerpts from a conversation the director had with Ronald Hayman, published in The Transatlantic Review No. 46/7, Summer 1973 (London) and transcribed for Doug Cummings for robert-bresson.com

Words: filmscalpel

Music: Schubert, Piano Sonata No. 20, D. 959