I’m finally getting caught up on my writing projects. The following essay is part of a full review of New Yorker Video’s new A Man Escaped DVD (to be released on May 25) posted at http://www.robert-bresson.com –Doug
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Robert Bresson’s 1956 masterpiece, A Man Escaped (Un condamnÈ ‡ mort s’est ÈchappÈ), is based on a book of the same name published the same year by AndrÈ Devigny, a Catholic French Resistance fighter in WWII. The book recounts Devigny’s true-life laborious escape attempt from the Gestapo’s Fort Montluc prison in occupied Lyon in 1943. While Bresson’s adaptation stays very close to the details of Devigny’s account–even filming in Montluc itself–Bresson accentuates the metaphysical aspects of the narrative, turning the story into a meditation on existential and spiritual themes rendered in precise, physical terms. This dual-visioned approach is made explicit from the start: Bresson adds a secondary title to his adaptation, The Wind Blows Where It Wills (Le vent souffle o˘ il veut), a biblical phrase found nowhere in Devigny’s book, emphasizing the serendipity of spiritual rebirth. This interplay between the physical and the spiritual generates a compelling paradox throughout the entire film, and it’s highlighted in a single passage from Devigny’s book:
“I had quite a lot on my side: an increasingly determined urge to escape, a plan already sketched out in broad outline and partially realized, the stupidity of the Germans, and a certain congenital predisposition to good luck on which I was always consciously drawn. There were two elements in this plan: mine and God’s. Where, I wondered, was the dividing-line set?
Alas, I could not tell; but I felt that heaven would only aid my grimly resolute struggle insofar as I threw every physical and moral reserve I possessed into the balance.”
But the film is far from a religious tract. When RenÈ Guyonnet of L’Express asked Bresson if one could find “extraordinary praise for the perseverance of faith” in the film, he replied, “This praise is not the subject, but follows from the subject.” When asked about the film’s sense of mysticism, he elaborated: “I do not believe that everything in a film is put there. You include some things without including them. What you call my ‘mysticism’ must derive from this. In Un CondamnÈ I tried to make the audience feel these extraordinary currents which existed in the German prisons during the Resistance, the presence of something or someone unseen; a hand that directs all.”
If Bresson seems to be editorializing his source material, he can be forgiven, as one of the few widely-known biographical details of his life is that he spent 16 months as a German prisoner-of-war himself, from March of 1940 to June of 1941. The intensity and realism of the film’s visual and aural detail surely owes a great deal to this experience.
In addition, the film’s tension between free will and determinism was a quintessential theme of postwar France exemplified by the existentialist writings of Jean-Paul Sartre, Jean Anouilh, and Albert Camus, who was a friend of Bresson’s. Questions of political occupation and personal responsibility, individual choice and fate were of paramount importance in a country processing its recent historical travails.
As Allen Thither writes in The Cinematic Muse: Critical Studies in the History of French Cinema (1979):
“It is, in fact, with a Kierkegaardian understanding of religious paradox that one must begin an interpretation of Un condamnÈ ‡ mort, for in one sense this is a film about an unmediated relationship between the particular and the absolute. The cultural context that grounds the narrative project is, in general terms, that system of existentialist religious values in which the oppositions of faith and despair, freedom and grace, or spirit and flesh establish a coherent semantic field.”
Bresson ingeniously conveys these philosophical themes through concrete and material means. In the opening scene of the film, Lieutenant Fontaine, the film’s protagonist (played by FranÁois Leterrier, a local philosophy student), is being transported to Montluc in the back of a car, seated beside two handcuffed prisoners. Bresson creates suspense as Fontaine eyes the road and fingers his door handle. Just when a tram passes before the car and it stops, Fontaine flings open his door and leaps to freedom. But Bresson’s camera, like the other prisoners, stares immutably ahead without panning with the action. Offscreen gunshots echo and figures are seen running outside the vehicle. The camera remains motionless. Within moments, Fontaine is apprehended and brought back to the car, restoring the frame’s composition, where he is handcuffed and cruelly beaten. In this first scene, Bresson establishes the tension between blind chance and inescapable fate.
A Man Escaped was the filmmaker’s first film with an entirely non-professional cast and it crystallized his mature aesthetic: a shallow depth of field in the compositions, automatic and barely-emotive performances, a heavy dependence on sound effects–particularly those occurring offscreen, isolated instances of music, brief dialogue, and elliptical editing that omits narrative detail in order to provoke mystery or avoid sensationalism.
The film is the second part of Bresson’s trilogy that relies heavily on narration (Diary of a Country Priest, A Man Escaped, and Pickpocket) and the first part of his trilogy that centers around themes of imprisonment (A Man Escaped, Pickpocket, and The Trial of Joan of Arc), although both of these elements appear in various guises throughout his oeuvre. And as AndrÈ Bazin described the complex relationship between the spoken word and image in Diary of a Country Priest (1950), “The most moving moments in the film are those in which the text and image are saying the same thing, each however in its own way. The sound never serves simply to fill out what we see . . . It is here at the edge [between sound and image] that the event reveals its true significance.” After Fontaine is brought to Montluc and beaten again for his escape attempt, he is later dumped in a dark cell. His blood-stained face pokes out from behind his jacket, thrown over him. He appears dead or at least unconscious, but then his narration begins: “I could feel I was being watched. I didn’t dare move.” And the viewer is reminded of Fontaine’s inner strength and craftiness.
The film famously restricts itself to Fontaine’s immediate space throughout. The sense of claustrophobia and lack of omniscient perspective submerges the viewer into Fontaine’s world. In a bare, concrete cell with nothing but a bed and a barred window that displays a portion of an empty courtyard, the viewer shares Fontaine’s joy at the smallest of discoveries–a pencil or a spoon or a box of clothes. Sound reveals a tremendous amount of information: where the prison is situated, what surrounds it, who is near or far, what they are doing. When Fontaine decides to engineer his escape, beginning by scraping his door with a chiseled spoon, it establishes the central visual motif for the film–Fontaine, specifically his hands, interacting with his material environment, forcing his situation, challenging fate by taking advantage of every vagary of chance.
In fact, Bresson’s treatment is much more focused in its perspective than Devigny’s, whose book offers several scenes set outside the prison and describes events immediately preceding and following his imprisonment. Much of the German terror in the book is personified by Montluc’s Head Warden, a beastly tyrant named Fr‰nkel, who was curiously an anti-Nazi himself, and would therefore oscillate between granting prisoners occasional freedoms (like packages from home) and beating them ruthlessly. (“No one could forget that squat, corpulent figure,” Devigny wrote, “that square head, those steel-rimmed glasses; much less his angry voice and continual oaths. I doubted if he had ever learned to talk; his only language consisted of curses and blows.”) In contrast, Bresson rarely shows the faces of Fontaine’s captors, who come and go merely with echoing footsteps and the rattle of keys, thrusting him about or sentencing him with ominous finality. (The anonymous SS officer who delivers Fontaine’s actual death sentence in the film is based on a mysterious figure in Devigny’s book named Colonel Barbier. Not until 1987 was Klaus Barbie identified, tried and convicted for crimes against humanity.)
The film’s structure progresses from despair to hope, isolation to community. Fontaine begins alone and slowly develops a network of relationships throughout the prison by tapping on the walls of his cell (the very means of separation become conduits of communication) or speaking from his window to Blanchet (Maurice Beerblock), his unseen neighbor in an adjacent cell who initially refuses to communicate. As Fontaine’s escape efforts gain legitimacy, however, Blanchet begins to believe in him. When one escapee fails but gives Fontaine important information for his own plans, Blanchet remarks that the prisoner “had to fail so you could succeed.” “It’s extraordinary,” Fontaine replies. “I’m not teaching you anything,” Blanchet retorts, and Fontaine nods, “Yes, you are…what’s extraordinary is that you just said it.”
AndrÈ Devigny died in February 1999 at the age of 82; by the end of the year, Bresson, too, will have passed away.
Chiseling and scraping, devising and communicating, Fontaine fights against his fate (the French title translates more accurately as One Condemned to Death Has Escaped) and restores hope in those around him. A perfectly realized and quietly burning film, Bresson’s fourth feature film is not only one of his greatest artistic achievements, but one of his most popular and accessible films as well. It’s an excellent entry point into the work of a master.