Robert Bresson, The Sublime Minimalist Part 4
#650 A Man Escaped
1956 // France // Robert Bresson
Criterion Collection (LINK)
Hands over the Prison
If there’s a film to epitomize the style of Bresson, the “Bressonian” as oft-cited, I would pick A Man Escaped without hesitation. It’s the fourth feature film directed by Bresson and the second one he employed non-professional actors, models as he described, to convey the inner thoughts and emotions via action and objects. Indeed the essence of cinematographic adopted by Bresson, in contrast to cinema, is significantly addressed in A Man Escaped by showing how the character performs an action and utilize an object. Every details of the process, from observation to contemplation, from conceptualizing the primitive ideas to searching and reforming essential instruments, from operating hand by hand to, after trial and error, accomplishing the preset goal, are all precisely presented. A Man Escaped meticulously depicts with authenticity, embellishes without exaggeration, enhances the salience of the mundane of the impossible task in prison break from the German-occupied French prison in 1943 Lyon. Above all, it shows man’s hope and faith.
Inspired by a memoir by André Devigny, a resistance fighter in WWII, Bresson tells a story of prison escape like no other does. Bresson himself also suffered from imprisonment by the German Nazi during WWII, his experience is incorporated into the story, thus making the film itself undisputedly personal, as the preface before the opening credits immediately informs us 7000 men were killed in which Devigny, Bresson and the surrogate protagonist Fontaine (François Leterrier) could easily be one of them. Bresson once claimed his purpose of making A Man Escaped is “…to show this miracle: an invisible hand over the prison, directing what happens and causing such and such a thing to succeed for one and not for another.” The alternative title, The Wind Blows Where It Will, a phrase from the Gospel of St. John 3: 8, implies that the mystery of a miracle has to do with not knowing God’s ways. Indeed Fontaine is a “man of faith”, not particularly like the Pastor (Roland Monod) in prison who relays on Bible and God, instead Fontaine is a pragmatic man with action, to act without truly knowing what lies ahead, believing that by making the first step a plan will eventually reveal itself. That would be the manifestation of his faith, which also echoes with the theme in all Bresson films that the predestined fate is camouflaged as fortuity.
Thereby we can say Fontaine is the chosen man, spoiler or not, he would successfully escape from the prison. The film’s English title unabashedly foretells the denouement, which is never an issue for Bresson insofar as he’s emphasizing the process instead of the result, unlike Jacques Becker’s Le Trou (1960) which partly relies on the ambiguous and bleak outcome for sustaining the suspense. Undeniably Fontaine is blessed for his delayed execution, blessed for getting help from Terry (Roger Treherne), a man strolling in the courtyard directly below Fontain’s barred window of the first cell, in obtaining the pin and razor essential for his subsequent escape plan. He takes a spoon, the tool for dismantling the panels of the wooden door of his cell, twice unnoticeably, and keeps a pencil, the writing instrument for communicating secretly with his fellow prisoners, without being caught by the guards once. When the pastor says he’s lucky to find a Bible in the prison, Fontaine is “lucky” to find a replacement spoon just after the first one broken. Besides obtaining consequential objects, the failed attempt of prison escape of Orsini (Jacques Ertaud) provides significant information for Fontaine: making a hook from the window frame.
Fontaine’s every attempt and action, one way or another, turns out to be an essential step for achieving his escape plan albeit unintentionally at the beginning. His insistence to communicate with his neighbor despaired prisoner Blanchet (Maurice Beerblock) eventually rewards him a blanket which is the material for a rope. His decision to trust his cellmate Jost (Charles Le Clainche), a young looking kid wearing the enemy’s uniform, is deemed as crucial as he later finds out, during the escape, it is impossible to climb over the wall by oneself. His determination to escape affects those around him which in turn provide significant help, Fontaine is blessed and he earns his blessing. The film is told in Fontaine’s perspective, the first person perspective that Bresson favors. The narrative is accompanied by Fontaine’s frequent voiceover, from explaining his action onscreen to revealing his inner thoughts and emotions (like his heart is pumping fast and the fact that he’s laughing hysterically in relieve). Again, the use of past tense in the voiceover indicates a recall from memory, that the scenes onscreen are being retold, thus implying that Fontaine would be able to escape.
Bresson insists on avoiding performance from the “models”, whereas he directs our attention by the gesture of the character, in particular the hands movement and the glances. The first image after the opening credits is the palms-up gesture of Fontaine, being caught and escorted in a police car. The camera often cut to his hand in attempt to reach the car door handle, implying his intention for escape. Hands are also fundamental for manipulating the objects into essential instruments for Fontaine’s escape, the dismantling of the wooden door and the metal-wired bed mesh, the disassembling of the window frame and the breaking of the glass. Hands, no less than the face, are a crucial index of intention and the means of potential action. And Fontaine’s glances often precede an incoming action and potential threats, reminding us to enhance our perception, particularly the hearing, to capture the slightest nuisance that attracts his glances.
The sound in A Man Escaped is like an individual character, fundamentally essential yet astonishingly refreshing. The sporadic train whistle and railroad sound offscreen indicates the prison’s location is amidst the city, which is later utilized as a cover for muffling the soft crunch on the gravel during the escape. Sometimes the sound creates an heightened suspense, the approaching footsteps of the guard, the unlock key sound, the squeaking sound of a bicycle rode by a guard in patrolling the perimeter of the prison, every slight noise would literally make your hair stand on end. The offscreen sound is more powerful and perceptible than an visual image, for example the first prisoner Fontaine met is actually never physically seen on screen, they communicate solely by tapping on the wall, and when Fontaine later finds out the prisoner is executed, the tapping induces more grieve and despair than a mere appearance of the dead prisoner’s face could. As important as the sound is the silence and the music. Mozart’s “Kyrie” is the only music to be heard in the film, which plays in Fontaine’s ritual-like daily contact with other prisoners at the washbasin and walks in the courtyard. It repeated breaks off just before its triumphant choral passage. The last passages of Mozart’s C-minor Mass could only be heard, besides over the opening credits, at the very end when Fontaine and Jost successfully escape from the prison and walking off into the darkness ahead, and subsequently the screen fades to complete darkness. It’s secular and transcendent, it’s the most triumphant movement among all Bresson’s films, it’s the complete victory of faith over despair, and the conviction that action is another form of faith.