Robert Bresson’s “A Man Escaped” is unconditionally a perfect cinema. Made in 1956 from the director Robert Bresson, this French film is based on the memoirs of Andre Devigny, who escaped from the Montluc prison in Lyon in 1943, during World War II.
It’s very rare cinema that attracts the threats of immense truth and however, precisely such tension is an indispensable criterion of one’s life. The greatest movies are those which take the perils- There is nothing in the world, we venture to say, and that would so effectively help one to survive even the worst conditions as the astuteness and a meaning in one’s life. “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how”.
I have watched many prison breakout movies before, like Jean Renoirs’ Grand Illusion (1937), Jacques Beckers’ Le Trou (1960), John Sturges’ The Great Escape (1963), Sidney Lumets’ The Hill (1965); Jonathan Demmes’ Caged Heat (1974); Milos Formans’ One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975); Alan Parkers’ Midnight Express (1978); Frank Darabonts’ The Shawshank Redemption (1994) and Jacques Audiards’ recently acclaimed A Prophet (2009), and none like this.
Bresson’s fourth film, ‘A Man Escaped’ is considered the second installment in an unofficial trilogy. The first film in this trilogy ‘Diary of a Country Priest’ and ‘Pickpocket’, being third, both of these stand as advocates of an unusual, crafty sophistication. The narrative structure of ‘A Man Escaped’ is no more complicated than its title suggests, in French-Un condamné à mort s’est echappe (One Condemned to Death Has Escaped). Bresson’s unique style of voice-over narrative is seen in almost all of his movies and this one is no exception.
This prison film is more on the everyday details of the escape, the director immaculate the vigorous details with the suspense playing in a layer, where a seemingly simple plot of a prisoner of war’s escape can be read as a metaphor for the mysterious process of salvation.
The film reflects just before the open credits where the camera rests on a plaque commemorating the 7,000 men who died there at the hands of the Nazis, thus establishing the shot of Montluc prison. Francois Leterrier leads the character of Fontaine, is on the way to jail, a member of the French Resistance. Fontaine is brought to prison, spat upon, and beaten. We don’t see his beating. Bresson’s restraint is such that screen violence is never an imperative. We don’t even see the faces of his assailants that Fontaine’s persecutors are Nazis means nothing in the course of things; they may as well be hostile foreigners in an uncharted territory. What we do see is enough: Fontaine stands in a corner in the way children being disciplined stand in a classroom, his face to the wall and his back to us, while clamorous German voices rattle off-screen. An SS Guard walks up to Fontaine, spits at his withdrawn face, then, to complete his humiliation, they turn him around toward the camera, toward us, and we see his face, bloodied from a gun-butt to the head.
He seizes an opportunity to escape his Nazi captors when the car carrying him is forced to stop, but he is soon apprehended, beaten for his attempt, handcuffed and taken to the jail. At first he is confined in a cell on the first floor of the prison, and he is able to talk to three French men who are exercising in the courtyard. The men obtain a safety pin for Fontaine, which gives him the ability to unlock his handcuffs. This turns out to be pointless because, in reassigning him to a cell on the top floor, the guards remove his handcuffs anyway.
Fontaine in his cell 107 on the top floor examines the door and figures out that the boards are joined together with low quality wood. Using an iron spoon he deliberately neglects to return after a meal, he begins to chip away at the wood. After weeks of work, he is able to remove three boards from the door, roam the hallway, get back in his cell and restore the appearance of the door.
Fontaine is not the only prisoner trying to escape. His prison colleague Orsini (Jacques Ertaud) also makes an attempt, but fails to get very far because his rope broke at the second wall. Orsini is tossed back in his cell and beaten up by the guards, and is to be executed within a few days. Fontaine is not daunted from his plan as he makes hooks from the light-fitting in his cell. He then fashions himself ropes from old blankets and fastens the hooks to the rope with wires taken from his bed. The other prisoners grow somewhat skeptical of his escape plans, saying he is taking too long.
After being taken to headquarters to be informed that he is sentenced to execution, Fontaine is taken back to jail and put back in the same cell. Soon he gets a cellmate, François Jost (Charles Le Clainche), a sixteen-year-old young man who had joined the German army. Fontaine is not sure whether he can trust Jost (whom he sees speaking on friendly terms with a Nazi guard) and realizes he’ll either have to kill him or take him with him in the escape. In the end, after Jost admits he too wants to escape, he chooses to trust the boy and tells him the plan. One night, they escape by gaining access to the roof of the building, roping down to the courtyard, killing the Nazi guard there, climbing the wall and then roping to an adjacent building. They walk away from the prison undetected, and the film ends.
Bresson attempt was well-known for abominating and curbing any dramatic situations, his emphasis is more on the static emotions and countermeasure of restraint, silence, and natural sensitivity. His use of off-screen sounds in the film gives us the feeling of the ominous connect in the prison of the real world out there, so we know it still exists. The picture perfect photography by Leonce-Henry Burel, is more beautiful than it has a right to be, and the Mozart music is impeccably chosen and consummates in a strong hug and whisper of joy shared by the two freed men in the climax
Robert Bresson’s attempt determines the last of the human freedom, to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way, and his triumph of the will, and obviously I choose those words very carefully. It is an acceptance of fate, too. But it is a fierce film, as well as utterly humble and by far, the best ever………………………………
- Directed by Robert Bresson
- Produced by Alain Poiré & Jean Thuillier
- Written by Robert Bresson
- Starring: François Leterrier; Charles Le Clainche; Maurice Beerblock Roland Monod
- Music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
- Cinematography by Léonce-Henri Burel
- Editing by Raymond Lamy
- Studio: Gaumont Film Company
- Distributed by Gaumont Film Company
- Release dates: 11 November 1956
- Run time of 99 minutes
- Country: France
- Language: French