Dennis Lim at Bookforum:
Robert Bresson's Notes on the Cinematograph holds a special place on the small shelf of books about filmmaking by filmmakers. First published in 1975, this slender and endlessly quotable manifesto by one of the cinema's supreme masters remains, for the receptive reader, potentially seismic. As distilled and exacting as his films, Bresson's compendium of epigrams—its title misleadingly translated in previous English editions as Notes on Cinematography and Notes on the Cinematographer—is film theory at its most aphoristic, the cinephile's equivalent of Letters to a Young Poet, a book to be read in an afternoon and pondered for a lifetime.
In four decades, Bresson made only thirteen features, works of extraordinary lucidity and profound mystery, of absolute rigor and overwhelming emotion. Most of his characters—who include an imprisoned resistance fighter (A Man Escaped), an obscurely motivated petty thief (Pickpocket), and a suicidal young wife (A Gentle Woman)—are searching for a liberation of sorts, whether or not they know it, and most of his films assume the form of a quest for the essential, for a state of grace. Bresson came to movies late, having started as a painter, and he would attempt to exercise as much control over a collaborative, industrial medium as an artist has over his canvas. His allergy to compromise meant that the films were few and far between. Reflection, whether by inclination or necessity, was part of his process. “Precision of aim lays one open to hesitations,” he writes in Notes, which he took several decades to complete, adding that Debussy would spend a week “deciding on one chord rather than another.”