One of the greatest ‘prison escape’ films of all-time, masterfully constructed through the sharp and precise cinematic techniques of the incomparable Bresson.
Dir. Robert Bresson
1956 | France | Drama | 101 mins | 1.33:1 | French
Not rated – likely to be PG13 for some mature themes
Cast: Francois Leterrier, Charles Le Clainche, Maurice Beerblock
Plot: French Resistance activist Andre Devigny is imprisoned by the Nazis, and devotes his waking hours to planning an elaborate escape. Then, on the same day that he is condemned to death, he is given a new cellmate.
Awards: Won Best Director & Nom. for Palme d’Or (Cannes)
Subject Matter: Moderate – Prison Escape; Freedom & Captivity; Faith
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: General Arthouse
Viewed: Criterion Blu-ray
First Published: 15 Jan 2017
You haven’t seen a jailbreak film until you have seen A Man Escaped, one of the greatest pictures of its kind, masterfully envisioned and compellingly constructed by Robert Bresson, one of the medium’s most revered of filmmakers.
Based on a true story, but loosely adapted to the tune of Bresson’s trademark style that emphasizes not actors’ performances, but the ‘performance’ of cinema, A Man Escaped tells of Lt. Fontaine (Francois Leterrier), a French resistance officer captured and imprisoned by the Nazis. As he awaits the verdict, nothing less than a death sentence, he plots a daring and improbable escape from his cell.
Bresson’s film, only his fourth feature, and coming after Diary of a Country Priest (1951), is a work of pure technique, using largely sound (in its various manifestations) to tell the story.
Narration by Fontaine in an uncertain future recalls the events (we aren’t sure if they are his inner thoughts or if he is recounting to someone), which suggests that the film is not about whether he managed to successfully pull off an escape (well, the title says it all), but how he did it.
“I think my courage abandoned me for a moment and I cried.”
You might wonder: how suspenseful could the film be if you already know how the story turns out in the end? Very. While narration gives a kind of descriptive quality to the proceedings, diegetic sound effects like bells, door locks, a passing train, etc. paint an audio-visual (in this sense aural as visual) of the environment that Fontaine’s (and our) eyes aren’t privy to.
Intricate in its attention to minute physical and aural details, A Man Escaped also sees Bresson inserting excerpts of Mozart’s ‘Mass in C Minor, K. 427, Kyrie’ at certain intervals, creating a solemn mood, and giving us a sober reaction to the human condition under suppression.
On one hand, the film is an examination of a man’s detailed plan of escape using sharp and precise cinematic techniques of sound and editing. On the other hand, Bresson’s work embodies echoes of spirituality, a depiction of a disciplined journey in search of self-enlightenment, that in its Christ-like manner hopes to inspire faith in others.
Bresson would continue to refine his austere style in the spare and economical Pickpocket (1959) and the moving and compassionate Au Hasard Balthazar (1966).
However, it is in A Man Escaped that he finds not just a story with resonant themes, but one that provides him with a constricted physical and psychological space (the prison and imprisonment) to experiment with the cinematic power of sound vis-à-vis the image, and hence broadening our perception of what cinema could be.
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