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Notes on TIFF 2018: Flying to Toronto With Robert Bresson

I’m a little ashamed to admit that this year’s Toronto International Film Festival was my first international trip (excepting a Canadian camping trip that never ventured into civilization). More momentous (to me) was the fact that it was my first major film festival. I’ve dabbled a bit in a few smaller festivals since moving to Los Angeles in 2016, but nothing with the massive scale of Toronto. It’s a kind of religious festival devoted to cinema, the only god I truly worship.

I’ve always been an unrealistic packer; I bring enough books for a two-month trip no matter how long I’ll be gone, and usually enough clothing to last a couple days fewer than I need. This trip was no exception. I finished approximately 1.5 of the 10 books I brought with me to Toronto — it turns out, when you’re watching three or four or even five movies a day, there’s not a lot of free time for reading. But on my flight across North America, I made it through one deceptively slim volume, Robert Bresson’s Notes on the Cinematography.

The title requires a bit of an explanation: for Bresson, there are two kinds of movies. He refers to the first, most common variety, as “CINEMA.” This category encompasses most of the films you or I have ever seen. Regardless of their quality, they are populated by professional actors, people who have trained and honed their craft for years. To Bresson, this form of moviemaking was hopelessly old-fashioned and built on the clichés of theatre acting. Bresson wasn’t critical of the theatre, but he believed that any form of movie-making had to be a completely separate art, and the acting of most films resulted in a bastardized form of filmed theatre.

His alternative, what he called “cinematography” (not to be confused with the more traditional definition of cinematography), is a form of film in which non-actors exclusively are used. It’s meant to be a new art form, one that decisively breaks from the traditions of theatre. Bresson refers to them as model, not in a derogatory sense, but meaning that they inspire a director the same way a model might inspire a painter. His models would bring their real-life experiences to play on the film and would be free of the acting ticks that audiences have become accustomed to. No model would ever appear in more than one of his films, lest they risk becoming an actor (though a few models would go on to star in other movies). Bresson’s view of the role of acting is diametrically opposed to the way critics and filmmakers generally think of it. The greatest actors are those with experience, education, and technique under their belt. Amateurs are occasionally compelling, but they tend to be viewed as the weakest part of the films they act in.

Bresson’s text is assembled from his notes on film over the years, and most entries are only a few sentences long. They take the form of random thoughts, though most are brutally focused on film and his opinions of the art form. I’ve only seen one Bresson film, the heartbreakingly beautiful Au Hasard Balthazar, but the depth of his thoughts made me want to find all his films. Even when I vehemently disagreed with his invectives against other film styles, I was still seduced by his passion.

My first few days at TIFF were influenced (maybe even poisoned) by Bresson’s strident statements. The first movie I saw, Mike Leigh’s Peterloo, seemed dreadfully fake and stagey, even compared to other Leigh films I had enjoyed. There was never a second in which I forgot his characters were all actors. During the molasses-slow first half, the acting was even more exaggerated, as if Leigh was trying to make up for writing overly talky scenes filled with characters we don’t care about. These were far from the models that Bresson preferred, with their real-life experiences.

Jafar Panahi's 3 Faces
Jafar Panahi’s 3 Faces

Bresson may have also increased my appreciation of the next two films I saw, Jafar Panahi’s 3 Faces and Christian Petzold’s Transit. In Panahi’s film, he and a popular Iranian actress take a trip to find a young woman who reached out for help but may have killed herself out of hopelessness. The leads are all actors or experienced filmmakers, but the story is so tethered to their real lives that they lack the standard acting tropes. The rest of the cast is made up of non-professionals, and they bring a wonderful freshness to the story. Petzold’s film is far different, comprised solely of experienced actors, yet he favors a directness and a lack of actorly histrionics that makes it seem as if these are non-actors, despite being aware of every previous film I had seen them in. He also eschews non-diagetic music; aside from a pleasingly on-the-nose song over the end credits, every bit of sound or music in the film is created by what we see on screen.

Though my Bresson fever came on strong, it broke as the festival progressed. The sublime acting in Paul Dano’s directorial debut, Wildlife, is so moving that only the coldest of viewers could complain about Jake Gyllenhaal and Carey Mulligan not having lived the story. Conversely, the over-the-top nature of Veena Sud’s The Lie had an IMAX theater’s worth of viewers chuckling; surely not all of them are up to date on Bresson’s views. His most polemical writing may not sway many readers and cinephiles, but even those who have never encountered his work nonetheless absorb bits of his philosophy floating around in the ether.

Now it’s back to home, and a respite from the constant onslaught of film. I’m someone who prefers to savor films, to chew them slowly and methodically, to let the flavors slowly coalesce or separate. One a day is usually enough for me, although a double feature can be an exhilarating adventure. This preference is out of sync with festival schedules, for which three films a day is on the light side. But there’s something pleasing about being bathed in cinema for a week. Many of these films won’t be released widely; some will never even receive North American distribution, instead confined to a zombified existence in repertory theaters. TIFF, and other important festivals, offer us a way to catch these films before they’re gone. Don’t miss the opportunity.

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