Un condamné à mort s'est échappé ou Le vent souffle où il veut
starring François Leterrier, Charles Le Clainche, Maurice Beerblock, Roland Monod
written and directed by Robert Bresson
by Angelo Muredda "This is a true story. I've told it as it happened, unadorned. --Robert Bresson." So begins A Man Escaped, with a handwritten statement of purpose that throws down a gauntlet to itself. Based on the memoirs of French Resistance member André Devigny (here rechristened Fontaine (François Letterier)), who escaped from Lyon's Fort Montluc prison just hours prior to his execution, the film delivers on its ambitious promise. It stays faithful to this claim to tell the story unadorned except with the light garnish of Fontaine's cool descriptions of the task before him--really an ever-unfolding expanse of smaller tasks like chipping away at a doorframe with a spoon over a month's time. Its focus is almost strictly on matters technical, to the point where even its spiritual ruminations spring organically out of moments of real labour. When a fellow prisoner's escape attempt is undone by his overeager hope for his next life to begin, he passes his knowledge of the precise spot he went wrong onto Fontaine with the solemnity of a wizened gamer delivering an annotated walkthrough to a novice. If these men are going to be reborn, we're assured, it'll only be by their own hands.
Expertly recreating Devigny's plan with precision and calm, A Man Escaped also fulfills a more personal promise, signalled not so much by the content of that opening note as by the scrawl of its loopy signature. Informed by Bresson's own year-plus imprisonment in a German POW camp, the film is as much an outpouring of the director's idiosyncratic style into the container of Devigny's remarkable narrative as it is a strict telling of the tale. Indeed, to tell that story unadorned is perfectly consonant with telling it in this cinematic language of concentrated long takes and studiously unfussy mise-en-scène; it's fitting that Fontaine's situation should deprive him of all but the most elemental comforts, the bare necessities of what he can fashion into tools for his escape. Letterier's blank expression is similarly appropriate, inviting our total investment in the task at hand, and little more. His cell is our frame--his freedom our only possible endpoint.
Still one of the most exhilarating heists committed to film, A Man Escape lands as both a breathless procedural and a tutorial in seeing. There's a phenomenological sophistication to the camera's recreation of Fontaine's restrained field of vision from its usual station just behind and over his head. This sensory economy extends to sound design--the way the distinctive jangle of a guard's keys against the staircase facing Fontaine's cell traces the contours of the hallway outside the frame, giving us a more detailed sense of space--and Fontaine's location within it--than most free-floating establishing shots.
This aesthetic mastery aside, it seems inadequate to talk about the film as if it were an exquisite woodcarving. As MUBI's Ignatiy Vishnevetsky points out in a recent reappraisal that smartly reads the auteur's output against the grain, Bresson tends to be encapsulated nowadays as a stern merchant of Catholic iconicity, asceticism, and transcendence; consequently, too little attention gets paid to his liveliness and flickers of humour. Whatever the weighty earnestness of Au hasard Balthazar's memorable final images, we ought to remember that we also get the singularly wicked profile of local deadbeat Gérard singing hosannas in the choir, his pose somewhere between Lucifer and Dennis the Menace. And grim as Mouchette is, it would be unfair to read Nadine Nortier's final plunge as purely a despairing fall into her destiny: There's a bawdiness to the way she hurls herself down the hill, to her playful insistence on soiling the bad gift of her new dress, that would surely give pause to a hard-line ascetic. While Bresson's usual formal rigour is in form in this earlier work, here, too, his most genius stroke might be the way he delivers that heaviness of purpose with a light touch. Fontaine's regimented private life is interrupted throughout by pitifully under-supervised public chats with the men around him. "Silence!" a Nazi guard always tells them, seconds after they've transmitted all the information they need with folded notes and pregnant looks. It's a punchy joke made all the more effective by its incongruity with the surroundings.
Now's a good time to revisit A Man Escaped, and not simply because recent films as disparate as box-office topper The Grey and Vincent Gallo-as-renegade-Taliban starrer Essential Killing owe something to its minimalist DIY survivalism. Programmed by TIFF Cinematheque's James Quandt, The Poetry of Precision: The Films of Robert Bresson is the first complete North American retrospective of Bresson's work in 14 years. Having just closed its run at New York's Film Forum, the retro moves to Toronto's TIFF Bell Lightbox on the 9th before stopping in a dozen other cities, including Los Angeles and Vancouver. Originally published: February 8, 2002.
"The Poetry of Precision: The Films of Robert Bresson" runs February 9th-March 30th at TIFF Bell Lightbox, with U of T Cinema Studies professor Bart Testa introducing Thursday's screening of A Man Escaped.