Thursday Editor’s Pick: A Man Escaped (1956)

by on January 20, 2012Posted in: Editor's Pick


Playing Fri Jan 20 thru Thur Jan 26 at 1:00, 3:45, 5:30, 7:45, and 10:00 at Film Forum
*Mon Jan 23 showtimes: 1:00, 3:15, 5:30, 9:30

 
Cinephiles can rest their weary soles (and souls), as Film Forum’s daily offering of Bressonian masterpieces and rarities comes to an end with one-week run of his existential take on the prison escape flick.
 

David Fear for Time Out New York:

Blessed with a weeklong run at the end of Film Forum’s bliss-inducing Robert Bresson retrospective, the French filmmaker’s 1956 tale of steel bars and iron wills boils a true-story prison break down to its bare necessities. “I’ve told it as it happened, unadorned,” claims the filmmaker in an introductory disclaimer, and that’s an unabashed understatement. Once WWII resistance fighter Fontaine decides he’s busting out of a Nazi hoosegow, the movie focuses, single-mindedly and laserlike, on every painstaking preparation for an exit strategy. Passing clandestine notes, stealthily chipping away at doors, braiding bits of mattress stuffing to make ropes; each detail is presented with minimal fuss while simultaneously milked for maximum suspense. Even the title dispenses with unnecessary frills: A man escaped. What more do you need to know?
 
Of course, anyone can stick to a rigorously steadfast, just-the-facts style or keep their nonprofessional cast from overemoting (or emoting at all). Only an artist can take these elements and, having escaped from the tyranny of Hollywood-ish excess, fashion them into a tale of genuine grace under pressure. That the closest thing to a melodramatic moral quandary—involving a cellmate who may be a snitch and is definitely a dead ringer for Dennis the Menace—doesn’t rock the aesthetic boat speaks volumes about Bresson’s commitment to achieving what would later be termed an “ecstatic truth” by peeling everything away. Sparseness can be rich beyond belief; the proof is now unspooling before your very eyes.

 

 
Jonathan Rosenbaum called it “the greatest achievement of our greatest living filmmaker,” for the Chicago Reader:

Stately yet uncommonly gripping… The best of all prison-escape movies, it reconstructs the very notion of freedom through offscreen sounds and defines salvation in terms of painstakingly patient and meticulous effort. Bresson himself spent part of the war in an internment camp and subsequently lived through the German occupation of France, experiences that inform his magisterial grasp of what concentrated use of sound and image can reveal about souls in hiding. A unique opportunity to experience this awesome talent, whose artistry is severely compromised on video. Essential Viewing.

 

Nigel Floyd for Time Out (London) has our favorite closing quote:

The true story of a French Resistance worker’s escape from imprisonment by the Gestapo in the Montluc fortress at Lyon was the inspiration for A Man Escaped: ‘The story is true. I give it as it is, without embellishment,’ claimed Bresson. However, by pushing through the authentic details into a more transcendental realm, Bresson in fact subtly transforms the simple story into a metaphysical meditation. This he does by introducing an unseen, transcendental force which helps the young man in simple but crucial ways: ‘I would like to show this miracle: an invisible hand over the prison, directing what happens and causing such a thing to succeed for one and not another…the film is a mystery…The Spirit breathes where it will.’ The kind of film which inspires awe, even in an atheist.

 

 

David Denby for the New Yorker:

Robert Bresson’s “A Man Escaped,” from 1956, begins with a shot of a young man’s hands as he is taken to a prison in Lyon during the German Occupation of France, and it returns to those hands as they scrape, cut, twist, bend, climb, kill, and, finally, release a rope that leads to freedom. It is not only the greatest of all prison-break movies but also an astoundingly detailed account of the activities of homo faber—man the toolmaker, or, in this case, man the escape artist, who begins with only a heavy spoon and, piece by piece, creates the means of his physical and spiritual liberation. Bresson shot the movie in the Montluc fortress; most of it takes place in the cell of a Resistance fighter named Fontaine (played by François Leterrier, a philosophy student from the Sorbonne). You rarely see the faces of the Germans, and among the French there is an intense solidarity. The prisoner’s lonely ardor is enhanced by Mozart’s Mass in C Minor; the ending of the movie, as the music wells up, is pure elation.

 

Tony Pipolo on Bresson for Artforum:

Notwithstanding their alleged austerity, Bresson’s films are among the most seductive in the history of cinema. From Diary of a Country Priest to L’Argent, no image is inconsequential, no sound incidental, no cut invisible. He made the film experience as critical as the subjects that absorbed him. His aim was to make every viewer an ideal viewer, as attuned to every nuance of what is on the screen as to the significance and palpability of what is not. No better example exists of the evocative power of offscreen space and the sound that emanates from it than A Man Escaped.

 

 

Pauline Kael in 1001 Nights at the Movies:

In this country, escape is a theme for action movies, but the French director Robert Bresson is famous for his uncompromising methods, and having been a prisoner of the Nazis himself, he is not disposed to treat his material-André Devigny’s account of his escape from the Montluc fortress prison-lightly. Bresson’s hero’s ascetic, single-minded dedication to escape is almost mystic, and the fortress constitutes a world as impersonal and as isolated as Kafka’s. The movie was shot at Montluc with fanatic authenticity; the photography, by Léonce-Henry Burel, is austerely beautiful. François Leterrier, a Sorbonne philosophy student, is the lead. The music is Mozart’s Mass in C Minor. All this makes it sound terribly pretentious, yet sometimes even the worst ideas can be made to work. It’s a marvellous movie.

 

Doug Cummings for Masters of Cinema:

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.

 
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.

 

 

Matt Bailey also agrees this is a great entry point into the director’s work, for Not Coming to a Theater Near You:

It takes a hell of a film to maintain a high level of suspense even when it gives away the ending in its very title. Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped is one such film.
 
Though the overarching aesthetic tone is one of realism, the film does not in any way aspire to documentary. As he did in his previous film, Diary of a Country Priest, Bresson simply puts into visual form the compelling story that already exists on the page, allowing the actions and events to drive the narrative. Through his spareness of style, Bresson links the actions and events with extreme elegance and only provides as much information, visually and narratively, as the viewer needs to move on to the next scene.
 
For the Bresson novice, A Man Escaped is the perfect introduction to his work. While it marks the maturation of his unique style, the genre of the film — the prison escape — and the linearity of the plot provide ample common ground for the first-time viewer to be able to see what is so extraordinary about Bresson as a filmmaker.

 

Academic Corner! David Bordwell on Bresson’s use of sound in the film.

 

 
Jaime N. Christley for Slant:

A Man Escaped seems to be one of the few Bresson films that both his fans and detractors can agree on, which probably has a lot to do with the active-versus-passive quality of Fontaine, one of the most resourceful and persistent heroes in Bresson’s filmography. Generally speaking, viewers, even hardcore cinephiles who claim to be immune to the powers of identification and empathy in movie scripts, respond better to an active hero as opposed to a passive one, hence the charges often leveled against Mouchette, L’Argent, and Au Hasard Balthazar, which some find off-putting in what may seem, according to the most cynical interpretation, to be uninstructive tales of God’s misbegotten creatures who are beaten and beaten until they die.

 
On the other hand, Fontaine, the most on-the-nose of the director’s lean-and-hungry surrogates, is a man who works against his jailers with his hands, his eyes, his mind, and his tireless pluck, giving the film access to our sympathies via fundamental storytelling as well as our feelings regarding the heroes of the Resistance, who were the “elemental actors of fearless opposition” writ large in the broader WWII narrative, i.e. the film’s meta-narrative. While A Man Escaped gains power from these two levels of story, there’s the material and spiritual thematic layers, which are carried out in watching Fontaine systematically engineer the means of his escape while remaining steadfast in his focus; even his momentary feelings of doubt seems to complete some variation on the stations of the cross. What’s dazzling here is the paradoxical coexistence of a story that’s both right before our eyes, as well as invisible and intangible. In many ways, the uncanny sound mix—Bresson, like Tati, was one of the great “sound architects” of the cinema, often constructing a film’s soundtrack, dialogue and effects alike, entirely in the studio—plays a large role in the latter.
 
Although rigorously committed to precise narrative delineation and wasteless editing, Bresson’s style is utterly alien to the way films are usually made, to the point that, as a colleague noted, he rebuilds the world with each edit. A Man Escaped, with a spoiler in its very title, is the axiomatic Bresson film, in that it’s about what it’s about (an imprisoned man escapes), but, at the same time, rises above its earthly architecture, in each moment conveying what’s within—and what’s outside.

 

 

Peter Hogue for the Film Comment (May/June 1999) symposium on Bresson:

Leterrier is one of the great vindications of Bresson’s preference for untrained actors. The matter-of-fact expression that he brings to nearly every shot in the film bespeaks the character’s unostentatious resolve, but it also bears a certain aura of Mona Lisa-like mystery and ambiguity. It is credibly the mask of a committed partisan at the same time that it is a face sufficiently ordinary to give no ready-made clue to the potential for heroism. Indeed, Leterrier’s ordinariness is part of what makes Fontaine’s dogged courage and faith so impressive and significant. There is a hint of the congenital smartass and a bit of the schemer in his gaze, but if he evokes a trickster almost too impish for his own good, he also embodies the prematurely wizened intensity of a youthful fellow who has long since become hardened by grave responsibilities. He might have been Renoir’s caporal epingle and under Bresson’s guidance and gaze he is putting his own indelibly haunting stamp on a role that might have been played by Jean-Pierre Cassel or Claude Rich in a more conventionally digestible and commercially cast film.
 
Bresson’s picture of World War II does not by any means limit itself to matters of individual struggle, however. The film’s portrayal of Fontaine’s battle does underline the prisoners’ individual isolation, and that in turn puts a vital premium on any interaction and communication the captives can manage. But the film’s portrayal of the larger battle, of World War II in France and Europe, focuses on telling glimpses of the moral and political conflicts within France itself The Germans in the film are almost entirely faceless figures of authority – agents of a menace the film treats as an unquestionable given. The faces of evil that the film does work to discover are French. A key part of Fontaine’s battle against the Germans turns on his ability to deal with the despair and the treachery he finds among his fellow captives and countrymen: Blanchet’s temporary defeatism, the anonymously uniformed workers (presumably French collaborators) who spit on Fontaine when he first arrives at the prison, the half-sublimated malice in the skepticism of the prisoner named Hebrard, etc. Most of the violence in the film occurs offscreen, and the film’s much-discussed offscreen space is loaded with political and emotional significance. Like Fontaine, we can hear the sounds of ordinary life going on just outside the prison walls as lives and souls hang in the balance.
 
The first thing we see in the film (after “Lyons, 1943”) is a medium closeup of a pair of hands. Views of people’s hands form one of the most haunting and eloquent visual motifs in Bresson’s films in general, and in A Man Escaped Fontaine’s hands get special attention – in part because the shedding of handcuffs becomes one of the film’s most significant acts of escape, but even more so because of the sense in which Fontaine’s intricately improvised escape is a handmade enterprise. In these quietly radiant images of homely beauty, Bresson’s understated sense of soulfulness makes itself felt in especially rewarding terms.

 

 

Jose-Luis Moctezuma thoroughly dissects the “perfect film” for Cerise Press:

Wondrous indeed the film which is both perfect and great; rarer still the film whose perfection derives from a deliberate minimalism and severe reduction of expression. Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped (1956) is one of those rare instances of a work whose greatness is directly characterized by its mechanisms of refinement; the film does not so much present a sheen of indisputable perfection as it reveals the hidden engine by which its nature produces a kinema of inward and outer symmetry. The risks taken in A Man Escaped — ordinary in themselves, but extraordinary in conjunction — are the same risks which characterize the whole esprit of Bresson’s œuvre. The risk, namely, of opting for counter-intuitive narrative techniques when more conventional ones present themselves.
 
The end-scene, staggering in its surge of emotion, swells up in a repetition of Mozart’s “Kyrie Eleison” and consummates in a strong hug and whisper of joy shared by the two freed men. They march away from us, almost forcefully against a powerful instinct to run madly, and walk into a sudden drift of fog that consumes the camera eye, while disappearing from the prison-house of language into the site of the actual. Freedom gains a new visual metaphor: the human model transcends the mechanism which brought him into being, by disappearing from sight. The body-in-kinema has finally escaped to a life freed from the fragmentation of history and scenario. The mechanism has vanished, and in its place stands a miracle: the perfect film.

 

And David Thomson, in Have You Seen…?

It is a film about the triumph of the will – and obviously I choose these words very carefully. It is an acceptance of fate, too. But it is a fierce film, as well as utterly humble. And you can tell yourself that it is a French Resistance story, if you like. Bresson’s second masterpiece. There are books that say the “style” is “rigorously spare,” and you know what they mean. But it is a symphony of a face in concentration and in excelsis. No effect is as special.

 

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