A Man Escaped / Un condamné à mort s'est échappé (1956)

You may recall that I have been avoiding Robert Bresson's purportedly minimalist film, A Man Escaped, for the better part of two weeks, despite the piles of Netflix guilt that has this neglect has accrued (I admit quite boldly to being a Netfix compulsive, who feels excruciating guilt for every day that goes by without returning an envelope). I suppose I feared that it would be coma-inducingly slow, somehow dragging out its hour and a half of narrative out for much longer than all three and a half hours of the spectacularly bad Ten Commandments (which I haven't been able to make it more than 45 minutes into so far).

I am happy to say that it was not nearly as somnolent or eventless as I feared. Not to say it was a rollicking action-fest - every bit of action, in fact, is clearly emblematic of spiritual struggle - but neither could the film be described as truly pensive, in my opinion. It is non-stop spiritual tussling from beginning to end.

I would like to give a more dignified summary of the film's concerns and narrative than that, but first I have to ask myself whether it is possible to spoil a minimalist film. I think the answer is, as for every other type of art, yes and no. It is obviously about more than its plot, but there is considerable value in having a "virgin experience" of the unfolding of the narrative. So if that appeals, beware of the rest of my short review.

A Man Escaped is based on the true story of André Devigny, who escaped from a Nazi prison in France, and on the director's own experience in a POW camp during WWII. In it, the prisoner Fontaine is accused of terrorism, but while he waits for his turn with the firing squad, he hatches intricate plans to break out, cannibalizing every part of his minimalist environment to form a basic, but effective, engine of escape. Naturally, since this is Bresson, the director also cannibalizes the material of the true story for the makings of a spiritual metaphor, and Fontaine befriends a priest in the prison who nudges him to confront issues of free will, destiny, and the extent to which God can be left to save the apathetic or inertly faithful.

Despite the urging of this man of faith, who is eager for him to "break free" of his bondage, and the painstaking readiness of all his preparations, Fontaine displays a remarkable (but understandable) reluctance to take the final step of actually initiating his escape. After much procrastination, and the deaths of several friends, he is called in by the Nazi administrators and told of his death sentence. That very day, another prisoner appears in his cell: a young boy with a Franco-German name and the uniform of a collaborator. Fontaine is forced to decide not only whether he can trust this suspicious newcomer (think Kiss of the Spiderwoman), but whether he will take the boy along or kill him.

There are a number of spiritual issues at work here, and although I have always found narratives and allegories of religious and psychic struggle somewhat tiresome (I'm not one for Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, I have to admit), one central, fascinating question did emerge from my viewing of Bresson's masterpiece: does knowledge in fact deprive you of choice? [Once Fontaine's young cellmate knows about the planned escape, for instance, neither of them has a choice any longer: Fontaine MUST go through with it, and the boy MUST come along.] In other words, is the choice to acquire or give knowledge our first and last decision? This question certainly has an interesting relationship to Genesis and Judeo-Christian mythic narrative of the Fall. But the answer, as nearly as I can get at it, is "not entirely": knowledge narrows the path, but it does not foreclose the capacity to betray, and it is the capacity to betray that makes trust both possible and miraculous.

I have a few questions about the title of the film. First, why is it in the past tense? Is this meant to privilege the historical fact of the events (their past-ness) over the immediacy of our experience of the film or the universality of religious symbolism (their presence)? If so - very odd. Also, why is the man singular? Surely it is fairly vital to the complexity and power of the film that his escape must involve trust, persuasion, and cooperation. And that, in fact, it accomplish more than just his own salvation. It is also worthy noting, while discussing the title, that the French version included an explicitly religious subtitle - Le vent souffle où il veut - that speaks directly to the central issue of choice and volonté.

A Man Escaped / Un condamné à mort s'est échappé or Le vent souffle où il veut (1956)
dir. Robert Bresson

  • You can find A Man Escapedon Amazon, Netflix, or at most stores that sell or rent foreign language DVDs.
  • Wikipedia has a short page on the film, and a longer one on Robert Bresson.
    • I am intrigued by this assertion from the Bresson page:
      Bresson's early artistic focus was to separate the language of cinema from the theatre, which often heavily involves the actor's performance to drive the work. With his 'actor-model' technique, Bresson's actors were required to repeat multiple takes of each scene until all semblances of 'performance' were stripped away, leaving a stark effect that registers as both subtle and raw, and one that can only be found in the cinema..
      Surely live repetition (in rehearsal as well as performance) as a means of smoothing away artificiality has a longer theatrical tradition than a cinematic one? It seems myopically antitheatrical to equate stage performance with artifice. Any Bresson experts want to weigh in on how accurate a representation of his philosophy and process this is?
  • Information on the cast and crew of the film can be found at IMDB, and Rotten Tomatoes provides a summary of the film's critical reception.
  • In his review, Kevin Hagopian focuses on Bresson's lauded use of sound in the film, arguing that in many ways it is a film "about sound." Sadly, my rather muffled television speakers didn't communicate the brilliance of the sound work (although the effectiveness of Bresson's use of Mozart was more than evident). That revelation will have to wait for another viewing.
    • Hagopian also notes one of the most fascinating aspects of the movie's process - it was filmed on location in the very prison that Devigny had escaped from, a prison that (in what is something between a respect for evidence and a curious act of relic-making) kept the ropes and hooks with which he escaped, and was able to provide them to Bresson's prop-makers as models to be copied exactly.
  • Bosley Crowther's original review for The New York Times can be found here. Although it is filled with praise for director and actors, he warns: "This is not the sort of picture that one should view without knowing what it is."
  • Last but certainly not least, in François Truffaut's reflections on the film, he agrees with me about its unsedate pacing (great minds, eh?), and makes fantastic observations on the anti- (or at least un-)theatricality of the editing, the lack of viewerly sympathy for Fontaine, the almost classical unity of the piece, and our less-than-limited omniscience about the world with which our protagonist engages.

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