A Man Escaped: Quintessential Bresson

On Film / Essays — Mar 25, 2013

Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped (1956) is generally considered one of the greatest prison-break movies ever made. It was inspired by the story of André Devigny, a decorated French lieutenant in World War II who escaped from Fort Montluc prison in German-occupied Lyon in 1943 and was awarded the Cross of the Liberation by Charles de Gaulle after the war. Except for the opening scene and the final shots, the entire film is set in the interiors and exteriors of a prison, modeled on the original, and follows the detailed activities of Fontaine (François Leterrier), the protagonist, as he prepares for what everyone tells him is an impossible feat. Bresson, having himself suffered cruelty and internment at the hands of the Germans during the war, wrote the screenplay and dialogue, based on a journalistic account Devigny had published in 1954 as “The Lessons of Strength: A Man Condemned to Death Has Escaped” (his memoir A Condemned Prisoner Has Escaped was published in 1956). Although the film’s preface assures us that it does not embellish that account, and Devigny himself acted as Bresson’s factual adviser, there are critical differences between his work and Bresson’s film. In fact, the first title Bresson considered, Aide-toi . . .—part of a phrase meaning “Heaven helps those who help themselves”—suggests that he was as attracted to the spiritual significance of the story as he was to Devigny’s scrupulous description of his experience. The film’s brilliant exposition of Fontaine’s daily efforts to convert the objects in his cell into the instruments of escape indeed became for Bresson the expressive means for the man’s pragmatic form of faith.

By the time he made this film, Bresson had been labeled a religious director; his first feature, Les anges du péché (The Angels of Sin, 1943), set in a convent, concerned the fervent endeavors of a devout novice to transform the life of a murderess, and Diary of a Country Priest (1951), the film preceding A Man Escaped, was the chronicle of a saintly vicar struggling against the indifference and iniquities of his first parishioners. The protagonist of A Man Escaped is a soldier and a man of action, but, like his predecessors, he is also a spiritual force, inspiring hope in his fellow prisoners. This is epitomized when, to determine whether the adjacent cell is occupied, Fontaine taps on the wall, effectively interrupting, at that very moment, his neighbor’s suicide attempt. Later, this prisoner—Blanchet (Maurice Beerblock)—buoyed by Fontaine’s courage and resolve, contributes a blanket to allow Fontaine to complete the final ropes needed for his mission.

Perhaps to avoid compromising this noble image of his hero, Bresson ends the film on an uplifting note, as Fontaine and Jost (Charles Le Clainche), his late-arriving cell mate, walk off to freedom to the chorus of the Kyrie from Mozart’s C-minor Mass. In reality, Devigny and his cell mate were recaptured, and the former, suspecting betrayal, abandoned his comrade. Also, whereas Devigny was a family man, we learn little of Fontaine’s outside relations. Even the specific crime of which he is accused is revealed only late in the film, and is identified as treason, whereas the immediate cause of Devigny’s arrest was his murder of the commandant of the Italian police. Clearly, Bresson was more interested in the inspirational nature of the story than in adhering to every historical fact.

The story and action of A Man Escaped also gave Bresson the opportunity to advance his own emerging aesthetic. Impressed by what he called Devigny’s “straightforward, very precise, technical account of the escape . . . written in an extremely reserved, very cool tone,” Bresson sought an approach that served those qualities, privileging the physical aspects and details of Fontaine’s endeavor and avoiding exaggeration, melodrama, and sentimentality. Even the protagonist’s narrative voice-over, based on Devigny’s text, keeps to the facts and is delivered in a neutral, uninflected tone. These voice-overs are accompanied by shots of Fontaine that betray a slight smile or a twinkling of the eye, complementing the content and tenor of what is said, without recourse to the emotional redundancies that a typical “performance” would add. Through a documentary-like stress on the action, process, and overall ambience of his material, Bresson clarified his pursuit of a more economic, streamlined film aesthetic, peeling away what he believed were the excesses of conventional narrative cinema. Already in Diary of a Country Priest, he had begun this, by using fewer professional actors (and the protagonist was played by a relative amateur) and making efficient and poetic use of offscreen space. In A Man Escaped, virtually every “actor” is a nonprofessional, including Letterier, who was a philosophy student at the Sorbonne at the time.

Much has been written about Bresson’s rejection of actors, which remains, for many, an obstacle to enjoying his films. Far from a directorial quirk, however, this decision was consistent with his aim of creating a uniquely cinematographic narrative form, one less dependent on psychologically motivated acting and dramatically structured scenes. He believed that actors—indeed, acting itself—were alien to the medium of film, because the camera could detect the slightest sign of artificiality and calculation. This conviction not only proscribed the use of professional actors given to a familiar repertoire of facial expressions, physical gestures, and vocal inflections, it also ruled out the kind of nonprofessionals found, for example, in Italian neorealist films—very popular at the time—who were encouraged to exude emotions and sentiments in order to move the viewer.

Bresson’s refusal to accede to a cinema dominated by the actor affected the overall look, structure, and impact of his films. Rather than grounding them in performances and dramatic scenes—the prevailing method of most narrative films even today—he shifted the emphasis to the inherent aspects of the medium: the framing, duration, and editing of shots, and the use of sound and offscreen space. These were the features that determined the rhythm of a film’s movement toward its goal. In other words, for Bresson, the word performance did not refer to something that actors did but something the entire organic structure of a film did. In referring to his métier, therefore, he chose the word cinematography over cinema, because the latter was associated with the more traditional form of dramatic filmmaking.

This does not mean that Bresson was indifferent to his characters or the people who “played” them. It is more a matter of how he chose the latter. He sought people for their transparent innocence, their virginal presence before the camera, and the unstudied nature of their physical gestures. These qualities rendered them as pliable as framing, lighting, and camera angles. As such, they were not actors at all, said Bresson, but “models,” whose faces, hands, voices, and body language could be carefully fashioned, molded to fit the contours and audiovisual dynamic structure of each film.

A good example in A Man Escaped of how the model is incorporated within Bresson’s cinematographic ensemble is the opening sequence. Through framing and editing, we are introduced to the protagonist, who, having been arrested by the Gestapo, is being driven to prison with two other members of the Resistance. Though he maintains a relatively neutral expression, his actions and offscreen glances tell the story. As he awaits the right moment to make a run for it, the camera pans down from his face to his left hand, which is testing the door handle. The crosscutting between his face and the road ahead testifies to his ongoing assessment of the situation. Without the benefit of traditional acting, dialogue, or voice-over, we enter directly into the mind-set of the character and the style that will dominate the rest of the film.

This approach, powerfully realized throughout A Man Escaped, was further refined in Pickpocket (1959) and The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962), introducing an altogether new kind of narrative filmmaking, one that many considered austere. Though the technical features of this style, which was soon labeled “Bressonian,” were adopted by many European filmmakers in subsequent decades, the unmistakably personal and unique aspect of it has often been misunderstood. The economy, purity, and rigor of Bresson’s aesthetic are directly related to his vision of the world, a complex perspective that carefully balances a belief in free will against the notion of preexistent design. For example, while A Man Escaped seems to be clearly mobilized by the protagonist’s will to be free, at the same time, Bresson said his aim was to “show the miracle [of] an invisible hand over the prison, directing what happens.” Thus, the propulsive trajectory of Bresson’s narratives—a result of the removal of excess and the refinement of technique—serves his overriding theme that human lives follow an implacable course. This is also apparent in such later masterpieces as Au hasard Balthazar (1966), Mouchette (1967), Lancelot of the Lake (1974), and L’argent (1983), despite their widely different subjects and increasingly cynical view of a world in which spiritual redemption seems to have vanished.

As the opening sequence of A Man Escaped suggests, and as the remainder of the film confirms, Bresson’s method of creating character was not through the actor’s performance but through the actions performed—an approach that emphasized the external world and concrete reality. It is what a fictional figure does that creates character; his inner self is revealed by his outward actions and how he performs them. In short, action is character. As we watch Fontaine go about his routines, methodically taking apart his cell door, a window frame, or his bedsprings, patiently winding his bedclothes into ropes, we perceive in these very acts the qualities that inspire others: attentiveness, creativity, diligence, fortitude, skill, patience, persistence, and, not least, faith. It follows that these actions are not rendered passively. For example, by employing the shot–counter shot rhythm generally used for conversations, Bresson converts Fontaine’s interactions with his cell door into a struggle between protagonist and antagonist.

From the moment we perceive Fontaine’s intent in the opening sequence, we are gripped by all that he does, forced to become as attuned to his environment as he is, sensitive to every offscreen sound and unseen threat. This intense involvement on the part of the viewer—clearly the reason the film works so well as a suspenseful prison drama—can be attributed to Bresson’s respect for the limitations of the narrative first person. He had already experimented with this point of view in Diary of a Country Priest, but here he reinforces the first-person perspective by harnessing and sharpening those filmic elements directly relevant to it. And so, since the protagonist’s perspective is restricted by the spatial conditions of his imprisonment, the film, too, observes these boundaries. As a result, sound and offscreen space are heavily accented, for the simple reason that Fontaine must strive to become more sensitive to these phenomena as indicators of what is happening outside his cell. As he works to dismantle the cell door, he listens for any sign of an approaching guard. Whether to document Fontaine’s frustrated but affecting communication with the prisoners in adjacent cells or to establish his awareness of life outside the prison walls, sounds and unseen spaces assume a vivid reality every bit as palpable as what we see on the screen.

It is through this masterful use of all facets of the medium that Bresson created not only one of the most exciting movies about imprisonment and the urge toward freedom but also one of the greatest, most purely filmic experiences any director has achieved.