A Man Escaped
directed by Robert Bresson
What’s your favorite film?” It’s the most banal question a critic–or any cinephile–encounters, and therefore the most essential. It invariably springs from trivial circumstances. Cocktail party chatter, waiting in line for something or other: strangers trying to connect, through a slightly forced, artificial conviviality. The subject turns, warmingly, to movies, but when you ask the question, I instantly anticipate the impending chill. Not the one that comes when we realize we don’t share the same title (how could we? look at the odds), but the one that follows your reaction to my answer: “Oh… I’ve never heard of that.”
Bresson inhabits the same territory of occluded eminence occupied by his best film; that most serious critics regard him as the world’s greatest living filmmaker (he’s somewhere between 87 and 97, depending on which source you believe, and hasn’t made a film since 1983’s L’Argent) just shows how far most serious critics are from most moviegoers. He and his work are often described with words like austere, minimalist, grave, modernist, Christian, and if you’re not up for at least some of what that litany implies, you might as well skip him. A Man Escaped is as close to populist as he gets, though notably so. His biggest hit at the box office, it’s jubilant where most of his films are despairing. Even critics who prefer the more fashionably bleak of his movies will allow that it’s the best Bresson film to see first, which perhaps serves as a caveat as well: Fall into its spell and you might well be sucked in by the rest of his gnomic gravity.
I favored prison movies long before I encountered this one. As a kid I saw The Great Escape (which merged with another favorite genre, World War II movies) countless times, and was always transported when Steve McQueen rocketed that motorcycle over the barbed wire, anticipating the translunar bicycle leap in E.T., an escape film that’s not without its own dimension of Christian allegory.
For those who may be turned off by the latter phrase, let me offer that Bresson would probably be opposed to it as well–at least to its dull literalness. In his later years (which he’s still in, of course) he reportedly described himself as a “Christian atheist,” but he might as well have said “non-Christian believer” or “anti-everything pantheist.” The religious force of his work is much of what attracts me to it, yet that force is less a matter of content than of process, and the process is one suggested by words that I prefer to those given above for describing Bresson: antithetical, paradoxical. For example, A Man Escaped’s (translated) title drolly destroys all standard suspense by giving away its ending, while the French original, Un condamne a mort s’est echappe, might also be Englished in a way that collapses the New Testament’s climactic event and Christianity’s essential message into five words that would make a dandy tabloid headline (you supply the exclamation point): Man, Condemned to Death, Escapes.
Yet at the same time, Bresson creates a dramatic mechanism that rivets you with breath-bating suspense no matter how many times you see the film, which itself seems unconscious of imposing any allegorical meaning on the viewer. Indeed, while Bresson movies such as The Trial of Joan of Arc and the magisterial Diary of a Country Priest have specifically religious concerns in mind, the great beauty of A Man Escaped is that it doesn’t. If you want it to be, it’s about nothing more (or less) profound than a man doing his damnedest to escape execution by the Nazis in Vichy France.
The story, as the film announces at the outset, is true. Though Bresson was himself imprisoned by the Nazis, he based his screenplay–the first he wrote by himself–on a 1954 account by Andre Devigny, a Resistance fighter imprisoned by the Gestapo, who escaped Lyons’ Montluc prison hours before he was to be shot. The movie’s strenuous fidelity to the facts is essential to its method; for Bresson, scrupulous, excessive literalism is the only way to catapult beyond the literal. The film’s exteriors were shot at Montluc, the studio interiors exactingly recreated the prison’s halls and cells and Devigny himself served as an adviser to assure the accuracy of countless details.
Extreme specificity (which is not to say verisimilitude, far less naturalism) is also key to the film’s style. The narrative opens with its Devigny, called Fontaine (François Leterrier), in the backseat of a car being driven through Lyons with two other prisoners. The first shot is of his hand on his knee. In the wordless sequence that follows, Bresson methodically intercuts shots of Fontaine’s face, his hands, the door handle next to him, the driver’s right hand shifting gears and the roadway in front of the car. The sounds coming from outside the car have a subtly striking clarity that comes from being discrete, surrounded by silence, not enveloped by music or noise. When at length (a length that is only a matter of seconds, although we have already been delivered into another temporal realm by the rhythm of the editing) Fontaine makes his decision, grabs the door handle and leaps out of the car, the film does something that takes us beyond what has already been announced by the fixity of the framing and the intent, slightly obsessive views of faces, hands and objects: Rather than cutting outside the car to observe Fontaine’s brief flight and recapture, it simply stays still, focused on the empty backseat. Shortly after, Fontaine is returned to the seat and handcuffed. As a guard begins to pistol-whip him, Bresson elides the sound and quickly dissolves to a shot of Montluc prison.
For all its apparent straightforwardness, there’s something deeply paradoxical about the stylistic approach established here, an approach that simultaneously emphasizes presence and absence, action and calm, matter and thought, immediacy and imminence. In much of the rest of the film, Fontaine is alone in his cell. We never see the executions that take place regularly outside; we only hear the gunshots. Bresson gives us Fontaine’s reflections in voiceover, but in a way that is deliberately redundant, stating what we see. Music is used only in rare moments: when the prisoners dump their buckets of shit in the morning, Mozart’s Mass in C Minor is heard.
Fontaine hides a stubby pencil, which naturally seems more significant than any king’s scepter; if it is found, he will be killed. One morning a prisoner who’s a Protestant minister finds a Bible in his pocket, and whispers, “It’s a miracle.” Seconds afterward Fontaine finds the humble spoon that will be key to his escape: This, too, is a miracle, and the film has no hesitation about announcing it as such. Later, after Fontaine has elaborately, painstakingly engineers his means of escape, a new prisoner is placed in his cell. He is a cute, tousle-haired teenage fascist named Jost (Charles Le Clainche). A spy? Fontaine considers killing him but decides to risk including him. As it turns out, the plan can only be executed by two people. Bresson isn’t shy about providing a clear parallel between the mercy his protagonist bestows and that which he mysteriously receives.
Coming from a director renowned as spartanly anti-dramatic, the film’s escape is almost preternaturally gripping. Precisely because Bresson withholds so much, we are invested without qualification in the passage of these two men, walking their tightrope across the abyss. And the film’s last 15 seconds, when the promise of its title is made good, has the light, exhilarating suddenness of fabric lifted by the wind, along with a profundity you can ponder for a lifetime. It’s easily the most purely exalting passage in all of cinema.
Bresson is famous for using nonactors (he doesn’t even call them actors, but “models”) whom he chooses for their looks and coaches to deliver their lines with blank faces and flat intonations. He doesn’t, in fact, like the word “cinema” but instead uses “cinematography” to stress the medium’s mechanical nature. His wonderful little book Notes on the Cinematographer is a Zen manual of motion pictures, composed of runic aphorisms like, “The true is inimitable, the false untransformable.” And, “To TRANSLATE the invisible wind by the water it sculpts in passing.”
As I say, he is antithetical: the thesis being movies as outward display, riotous spectacle, glorious distraction. Naturally, we wouldn’t want films in general to be like Bresson’s, yet we could hardly understand what cinema is without his great counterexample. Though his style admittedly takes some getting used to, anyone who gets used to it is inevitably hooked for life. I tell people who are encountering it for the first time: Observe your breathing. Bresson’s films encourage, or require, an attention that is somewhat like meditation with its quiescent, rhythmic respiration. This is exactly what most movies condition us against, but once you relax into it, you’re ready for the rest of what he has to give you.
His style has been exhaustively analyzed, and the most famous book in English about him, Paul Schrader’s Transcendental Style in Film, draws detailed comparisons between his work and that of Yasujiro Ozu (as well as of Carl Theodor Dreyer). The East-West analogies are useful because the visual fragmentation of his style does have many parallels to the “ideogrammic” method that Eisenstein viewed as the central tradition of East Asian filmmakers. Yet it’s also worth observing that Bresson’s sensibility is essentially Western, but medieval, and thus deeply averse to much that came with the Renaissance, the introduction of perspective in painting and so on. His loving, disjunct severity would do just fine on any gothic cathedral.
Still, it’s too easy for some critics to focus on the style and thus confine Bresson’s meaning to the realm of the esthetic when, as David Thomson has put it, his work is “so clearly inspirational,” i.e., specifically religious. Bresson considered two alternate titles for A Man Escaped. One was the French equivalent of God Helps Those Who Help Themselves, which neatly summarizes the film’s view of the relation between human will and grace. The other alternate (now the film’s subtitle), The Wind Bloweth Where It Listeth, marks a significant departure from Bresson’s source.
Devigny, in prison, was given this passage of Scripture: “Ask and you shall receive, seek and you shall find, knock and it shall be opened to you.” Bresson instead chose Jesus’ words to Nicodemus in the Gospel According to John to emphasize the mystery of grace and its preeminence over human action, explaining that The Wind Bloweth Where It Listeth indicates “those extraordinary currents, the presence of something or someone, call it what you will, that directs everything like a hand. Prisoners are very sensitive to this atmosphere, which is in no way a dramatic atmosphere; it all happens on a level that is much higher.”
I must agree with Jonathan Rosenbaum’s observation, in the Bresson retrospective’s catalog, that the hallmarks of Bresson’s cinema “might be traceable in part to his nine months (1940-41) as a POW in a German internment camp and his subsequent experience of the German occupation of France.” Which suggests to me not just that the prison experience makes A Man Escaped his most personal–and essential–film, but also that his work overall comes out of the dark night of one particular soul, and finds its most perfect, and most transcendent, expression in this unabashedly religious film. In a way, auteurism reaches its greatest fulfillment, and stops, with Bresson, just as Bresson’s central message stems from and always returns to the experience of a Nazi prison.
Yet, inevitably, A Man Escaped is also its own heresy: a film about cinema, disguised as a Christianized myth of Plato’s cave. If it’s my favorite film, does that mean I also think it’s the best film ever made? Of course not. Everyone knows that, although it’s actually not Orson Welles’ best film, Citizen Kane is the greatest film ever made. So be it. Kane, you will recall, is about a man who doesn’t escape, who ends up imprisoned by all the objects (read “illusions”) he has acquired in the world (read “cinema”). A Man Escaped reverses that allegory of why we love to remain trapped in the movies’ delicious darkness. It’s about a man who reaches the light, and that in turn helps explain Thomson’s remark that to surrender too completely to Bresson is “to risk conversion away from cinema.” That light is, very precisely, the end of cinema.
A Man Escaped will be shown at MOMA on Sat., Jan. 30, at 1 p.m. and Sun., Jan. 31, at 2 p.m. 11 W. 53rd St. (betw. 5th & 6th Aves.), 708-9400.
MOMA’s Bresson series runs from Jan. 22 to Feb. 7 and includes new prints (with new subtitles) of all 13 of his features. Unfortunately, it does not include his first short, the rarely seen Affaires Publiques (1934); the 25-minute film had been announced but was withheld from traveling abroad at the last minute. The series also features The Way to Bresson (1983), a 54-minute Dutch documentary with comments by Paul Schrader, Andrei Tarkovsky, Dominique Sanda and a brief but illuminating interview with Bresson.
The retrospective’s catalog, edited by James Quandt and published by the Cinematheque Ontario, comes billed as the first new collection of essays about Bresson in English in 30 years, which indicates the paradoxical way he has been both lionized and ignored by critics. The 600-page tome contains 27 essays, three interviews and a selection of comments by famous filmmakers. As you would expect, it’s a hit-or-miss affair. Alas, and ironically, one of its most woodenly academic pieces is Allen Thiher’s on A Man Escaped (“The Semiotics of Grace,” which calls forth the eminently Bressonian retort, “Gag me with a spoon”).
The book’s best piece, Raymond Durgnat’s “The Negative Vision of Robert Bresson,” offers a very detailed, readable and stimulating discussion of the doctrinal and theological roots (from Jansenism to Christian existentialism and beyond) as well as the philosophical and esthetic ramifications of Bresson’s religious thought. Bless his heart, the English critic even manages to invoke the Shroud of Turin. Jonathan Rosenbaum’s essay, which dubs Bresson “The Last Filmmaker,” serves up a provocative reading of why Bresson’s movies really need to be seen onscreen rather than on video, where they almost melt into nothingness.
While the book overall is pretty much what you’d expect, I must say that its exclusive use of “the usual suspects” among critics (Sontag, Barthes, etc.) and filmmakers keeps it in a familiar, slightly stuffy corral where Bresson least of all deserves to be penned. An essay by the contemporary mystic Andrew Harvey, for example, might have opened up the discussion in a refreshing, valuable way.
Quandt’s interesting introduction has a section called “Bresson and Other Filmmakers: Affinity and Influence,” which smartly if cursorily connects him to R.W. Fassbinder. The footnote I could add to this concerns Bresson’s affinities and influence in Iran (where, to extend Rosenbaum’s trope, the last filmmaker encounters the last national cinema). The collision of despair and exaltation in the work of Mohsen Makhmalbaf, the only other director I know of whose dark night of the soul came in prison, offers obvious parallels, while Abbas Kiarostami’s blending of sensory immediacy and allegorical allusiveness suggests a distinct if perhaps distant influence. One of the most famous books of Iranian film criticism concerned Bresson, and Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry has no competitors as the most Bressonian of recent films from anywhere.