Robert Bresson once famously referred to his actors as “models”. This idea, the possibility of reducing the subjectivity of the human until it dissolves completely into mis-en-scène, defines for many film buffs Bresson’s technique. Criterion’s release of the 1956 film, A Man Escaped, provides us with the opportunity to lose ourselves into the painterly constructions of the director who really gave us the concept of cinematography. A world free of sentiment but full of feeling.
A Man Escaped tells a simple story of a French resistance fighter captured by the Gestapo. Planning his escape, he makes common cause with Orsini, a fellow prisoner who has been betrayed by his own wife. Although Orsini tries to escape and fails, Fontaine presses on, only to have the Nazi’s decide to execute him. He rushes his plan along with the help of a new, young cellmate named Francois Jost (who may, or may not, himself be a Nazi spy).
Fontaine lives for us in every gesture, in his every look, in every movement of his methodical planning to escape. For Bresson, eschewing characterization does not create an inhuman world, quite the opposite. We may know little of Fontaine as a developed and rounded character. But Bresson has focused all his photography’s energy into giving us a series of unforgettable narrative moments.
So, for example, when Fontaine looks over a ledge during the climatic escape, shadow covers half his face as bells toll midnight. Below him, we see a Nazi guard who appears only as a helmet and a coat in a pool of muddy light, smoke from a cigarette wafting around him. We do not have well-known actors playing parts with well-developed backstories. But we do “care about the characters”, because Bresson’s camera has forced on us their humanity, unwilling to give us something so simple as sentimentality, excitement and ginned-up feeling.
Although anything but an action film, even audiences not familiar with Bresson’s technique will be moved by the subtle ways he finds to build tension. His camera’s lack of interest in his character’s story allows for an almost workmanlike examination of Fontaine’s efforts to open a hole in his cell with an iron spoon, fashion a rope from shirts and mattresses, and secure the rope with hooks made from light fittings. The final scenes, the escapees feet crunching gravel a bit too loudly while using the sound of a nearby train to mask their movements, and the catastrophic meeting with a guard, offer an excruciating slow burn of frisson.
The sound quality of Criterion’s A Man Escaped is as excellent as expected. The soundscape proves essential for this quiet film. The sudden eruption of gunfire as Fontaine takes air while looking out into the yard creates a nauseating sense of the prison’s completeness, its totality and its threat. The muffled voices of fellow prisoners, ratcheting up the tension by worrying us with the near impossibility of escape, prepares us for the climax. The escape itself draws into energy from a collage of muffled sound, interrupted by the tolling of bells and the ominous squeaking of a guard’s bicycle tires.
An extra disc comes filled to the brim with special features. An extended interview with Bresson represents the greatest treasure on the second disc. Interviewed by a young reporter from the influential Cahiers du Cinema for French television, Bresson explains his theory that narrative actually means little for the meaning of the film. He insists, and A Man Escapes bears this out, that the story serves primarily as a pretext for the creation of minimalist photography. Form triumphs over theme. This feature also includes long clips from Bresson’s oeuvre, including the famous and unforgettable train station scene from the 1959 film, Pickpocket.
The second disc also includes a documentary entitled The Road to Bresson, a feature that blends an examination of the director’s career with the story of a Dutch filmmaker’s attempt to get an interview with the master. This feature tackles the thorny issue of Bresson’s contempt for other filmmakers and other filmmaking technique. Interviews with Orson Welles, Paul Schrader and Andrei Tarkovsky also show the degree to which some of the world’s most important directors held Bresson in awe. This documentary also offers us Bresson interacting with the press after the premier of his L’Argent, including a wonderful moment when we get to see the aging director respond to a film reporter who asks him why he insists on “frustrating” his viewers.
Two other documentaries round out this really completist offering of material on Bresson’s work. “The Essence of Forms” provides interviews with some of the director’s actors, cinematographers and script supervisors. The final documentary, although it has the pedestrian title of “Functions of Film Sound”. offers a complete study of what it calls the “complete interplay of image and sound” in Bresson’s work. Actor Dan Stewart reads a chapter from David Brodwell and Kristin Thompson’s Film Art that explores the role played by sound in A Man Escaped.
As with most Criterion releases, these two discs come with a booklet containing a film essay. Tony Pipolo writes about the film as typical of Bresson’s ability to pull the subjectivity of the viewer into the film, to exclude the comforts of character development in favor of trapping us in the story. He achieves this, Pipolo, brilliantly shows, by a shot-countershot technique that continually concretizes the central struggle of the film. “Bresson converts Fontaine’s interactions with his cell door,” Pipolo wtites, “ into a struggle between protagonist and antagonist.”
A Man Escaped has moments that feel like the entire world has become a prison. This achieves Bresson’s desired effect of engaging us utterly in the narrative, forcing us to know the characters and their moments rather than meeting them. But just as we feel the walls close around us, we also discover Fontaine’s simple refusal to acquiesce to his chains.
“Why bother?” asks a fellow prisoner in a conversation with Fontaine about why he digs at his cell walls with a spoon. Postwar Europe wondered this after the cataclysm of global conflict and genocide had seemingly drawn all meaning out of the world. “To fight the walls,” Fontaine asserted, “too fight myself.” By freeing us from his character’s persona, Bresson gives us his humanity.