1956’s “A Man Escaped” was the fourth feature from French cinema pioneer Robert Bresson and a showcase for his focused minimalist filmmaking. Considered by many to be Bresson’s masterpiece, the film brims with his signature stripped down presentation, free of any visual or narrative embellishment. In fact the film opens with a message from Bresson that reads “The following is a true story. I present it as it happened, without adornment”.
Bresson’s low-key style is also seen in his aversion to using movie stars in his films. He believed professional actors, much like special effects, drew attention to themselves and away from the story. He also believed professional actors conveyed too much emotion in their performances instead of letting the audience deduce it on their own. Therefore Bresson preferred to cast people to be models instead of performers.
His chosen model for “A Man Escaped” was François Leterrier. He plays a French Resistance soldier named Fontaine. It’s 1943 and the film begins with a captured Fontaine being transported by Nazis to Montluc military prison in German occupied Lyon. The film is based on the true story of André Devigny and his attempt to escape Montluc prison before he is to be executed.
The story is as simple as they come yet so enthralling. With the exception of two brief scenes the entire film takes place within the walls of the prison. Fontaine is our eyes and ears. When he is in the cell so are we. When he is allowed out to wash we are with him. Then back in the cell we go. Everything we learn is from his perspective – from his brief interactions with other prisoners in the washroom, from what he sees from his cell window, or from the sounds he hears.
The sound element is crucial to Bresson’s film. As mentioned it often provides information. A good example is the disturbing sounds of echoing machine gun fire each time the Nazis perform an execution. There are no common cutaway shots to visualize it for us. Instead it is spoken to us through the sounds. Bresson also focuses on every sound Fontaine makes as he prepares for his escape attempt. He secretly uses the few things in his room as tools and every sound he makes could tip off the guards.
Fontaine’s narration may be the most vital component in Bresson’s feeding of information. In some films narration can be a crutch. Here it cleverly unveils Fontaine’s feelings and thought processes while adding a surprising amount of depth to his character. It also serves as an important source of time. As we hear Fontaine’s reflections he often alludes to the passing of time – days, sometimes months. Every bit of narration is succinct and has purpose. It doesn’t romanticize the story or character in any way.
Bresson frequently channeled much from his personal experiences into his movies. In the case of “A Man Escaped” it’s the cruelty he experienced from Nazis as a prisoner of war during World War 2. Certainly the bulk of his inspiration came from Devigny’s true account, but you clearly sense a personal connection between director and his cinematic canvas.
Robert Bresson was one of the most original and influential filmmakers in cinema history. “A Man Escaped” is an exhibition of his unique style and approach. Spiritual undertones, personal influences, and a minimalist focus are just some of his characteristics highlighted in this brilliant 1956 classic.
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS