A Man Escaped (1956)
Director: Robert Bresson
Cast: Francois Leterrier
My Rating: ★★★★1/2, or 9/10
In Short: Bresson’s liberation; one of the truly great prison movies
Prisons keep popping up in the films of Robert Bresson. In Les anges du pèchè, a convent of nuns dedicated their time to rehabilitating prisoners; Pickpocket ended in a prison cell; The Trial of Joan of Arc features prison prominently; so does L’Argent. But none of Bresson’s films dealed with imprisonment as seriously and brilliantly as A Man Escaped. One thing that annoys me is that it is rarely mentioned in discussions of prison movies, mainly because a lot of people haven’t seen it. This bothers me too, as it is one of Bresson’s more famous and accessible films, and in many ways it is also one of his lighter.
In A Man Escaped, the viewer feels as claustrophobic and trapped as the protagonist himself, and few films have captured that feeling of isolation and loneliness as well as this one. Movies like The Shawshank Redemption sure don’t make prison look easy, but they make it look more open. In reality, for a prisoner, particularly in World War II, prison is a small, confined place where the walls seem only to get closer and closer, and freedom farther and farther.
A Man Escaped (full title: Un condamné à mort s’est échappé ou le vent souffle ou il veut) is about Fontaine, a Resistance fighter who is captured by the Germans in occupied France during the middle stages of the Holocaust, and whose death seems almost certain. For days he sits and stares at the walls and windows, spending his time lost in troubled thoughts and communicating to other prisoners via Morse code. All the moments of Fontaine’s confinement are captured and presented in long, calm, tense takes. When he is shifted to a room with a wooden door, he discovers a method of escape and carefully chips through the door frame day after day, minute after minute, risking being captured and forced to be as delicate and slow as he can with his plans. Eventually he manages to break through part of the door, reach around and unlock it and escape, though on this occasion he discovers he cannot go far without being spotted. Thus begins a painstaking journey to freedom, a prison escape unlike any other, presented realistically, without excitement, and building tension realistically and calmly.
The film, as you may have deduced, is Bresson at his most minimalist. Everything is presented with such simplicity and realism that events seem to occur in real time, even as we realize how long; how many months, perhaps even years, this escape has taken, with the date of Fontaine’s execution looming ever closer. Events are never exaggerated, but such things as a particularly large chip in the middle of a piece of wood, or the slow development of escape tools seem so momentous and important that they emphasise themselves as vital plot points. Unlike prison films like Shawshank and Midnight Express, A Man Escaped is not concerned with the horrors of prison. We all know prison is a terrible place. A prison in World War II, we imagine, can only be worse. We don’t need scenes of violence, torture or profanity. A Man Escaped is concerned purely with what happens inside the cell, from Fontaine’s point of view only.
Many viewers won’t realize that Bresson himself was imprisoned during the war, as a member of the Resistance, persecuted by the Nazis. He experienced the same emotions Fontaine did sitting in his cell, and unlike the directors of many of today’s war films, he knew first hand what wartime was like for a prisoner. A Man Escaped is Bresson’s liberation. When Fontaine ultimately finds himself free, smelling and breathing the air and atmosphere of freedom, it is Bresson being released from his cell, finding the oxygen and inhaling it, sending blood flowing around his body, through his brain, heart and legs, regaling his senses and striking a rare spark of optimism into an otherwise troubled consciousness.
Previous films in the Bresson-athon:
Les anges du peche (1943)
Diary of a Country Priest (1951)