Robert Bresson's specific theological beliefs are difficult to pin down, which is not surprising considering that the director doled out autobiographical information with an eye dropper. He believed his films should speak for themselves.
Like many critics I have written that Bresson believed in predestination, but the more I study his work (he preferred the term “striving”), the less certain I am of such a simplistic claim. Bresson was, at times, happy to embrace the perception that he was a Catholic filmmaker and, more specifically, that he was sympathetic to the Jansenist belief that we are all essentially “fallen” but that a select few are scheduled for salvation. Everyone else is kind of screwed, but even the chosen ones must struggle to achieve the grace that has been gifted to them.
Bresson later rejected the Jansenist label and resisted any systematic effort to view his films through the lens of a single philosophy. It's also likely that his beliefs (or lack thereof) evolved over his lengthy career. Regardless of his personal stance, with “A Man Escaped” (1956) Bresson clearly planned to make a film that embodied the theme of predestination: “I want to show this miracle: an invisible hand over the prison, directing events and making something succeed for one person and not another.”
The film, written and directed by Bresson, is based on the memoirs of André Devigny, a French resistance fighter who was imprisoned by German occupation forces at Fort Montluc in Lyon, France. Devigny escaped from the escape-proof prison ,and his memoirs provide a no-frills, pragmatic account of his daring feat, making it a perfect choice for Bresson who follows the source material fairly closely though, inevitably, slanting it towards his own focus (it's worth noting that Bresson was also a prisoner of war though he revealed few details about his ordeal.)
Devigny is renamed Fontaine and is played by non-professional actor Francois Leterier who, like all the cast members, delivers most of his lines in the flat, uninflected style so closely identified with Bresson. When we first meet him, he is handcuffed in the back seat of a car driven by German security on the way to Fort Montluc. He almost immediately attempts to escape, is re-captured and beaten. He will try yet again before he is even in his prison cell. Once there, he takes a little more time to measure his surroundings, but there's no doubt about what his primary goal is, or about the outcome. If the full French title “A Man Condemned To Death Who Escaped” doesn't give the ending away, the fact that the film is accompanied by Fontaine's past-tense voice-over should clue you in.
Bresson wasn't interested in suspense, but he certainly wanted to create tension. He achieves it marvelously by refining his cinematographic style to attune viewers to a kind of first-person cinema. Virtually every shot and, just as importantly, every sound we hear reflects Fontaine's immediate sensory experience. Every inch of Fontaine's cell is clearly delineated, and the puny handful of objects in his world achieve a talismanic quality: the nub of a hidden pencil represents his defiance, a hastily concealed spoon becomes his literal and metaphorical key to freedom. The constant scraping of the spoon against the thick, rotting wood of his cell door dominates the film's action for a boldly lengthy stretch, one of several evocative sounds (painstakingly isolated and recorded in post-production) that make “A Man Escaped” a unique auditory experience. I've never heard anything like it... except in other Bresson films.
By focusing ruthlessly on such quotidian, sensual details, Bresson immerses us completely in Fontaine's world, but this is more than just a highly distilled prison escape tale. It becomes apparent that Fort Montluc is, indeed, as escape proof as its reputation suggests, except for the prisoner who has help from the outside, or perhaps from above. A series of coincidences pile up: a fastidious guard happens not to check Fontaine's jacket pocket one day, a mysterious package arrives from an unidentified source and provides the material necessary to continue the escape plan, a second prisoner is assigned to Fontaine's cell just as he realizes he can't make it over the wall without an accomplice.
Bresson has no apparent interest in explaining these mysterious circumstances: he's more interested in the mystery itself, the idea that one man would catch all the breaks (or blessings, if your prefer) and that another wouldn't. The film's alternate title is a Biblical allusion, “The Wind Blows Where It Wills.” Fontaine is no charity case, however. He needs fate on his side, but he has to be ingenious and persistent to take advantage of it. At one point, Bresson planned to call the movie “Aide-toi” or “Help Yourself” and Fontaine states it more plainly, “It would be too easy if God handled everything.” Of course, there's nothing wrong with easy.
Since “A Man Escaped” provides us with the only unambiguously happy ending in Bresson's oeuvre (the man escapes), it's tempting to view the idea of an “invisible hand” over the prison as a source of inspiration. Bresson definitely emphasizes the ways in which Fontaine's dogged optimism inspires his fellow prisoners who move from a state of defeated acceptance to one of burgeoning hope. However, consider the element of caprice implied. What if the wind blows right past you, or blows you into a ditch? What kind of sick mind would make things “succeed for one person and not another”? Bresson would later build stories around protagonists (like Mouchette and the donkey Balthazar) who find out how rough it can be to be born under a bad sign, which explains why many critics believe that Bresson became increasingly despairing throughout his career. Bresson, of course, resisted the notion: “I see myself as lucid rather than pessimistic.”
“A Man Escaped” is not pessimistic, but it is sure as heck lucid. Bresson strove to strip down his cinema to its barest essentials, and he had already all but perfected the elements of an idiosyncratic style that can be described as nothing other than Bressonian even with this early feature. He knew precisely what he wanted audiences to see and hear, and scrubbed everything else from his audiovisual canvas. The effect is startling, sometimes disorienting, and an unqualified triumph. “A Man Escaped” is not just the greatest prison escape film ever made, it is one of the greatest films of any kind ever made. And the coolest thing is, Bresson would get even better.
The film is presented in its original 1.33;1 aspect ratio. “A Man Escaped” was previously available in Region 1 only on a bare-bones 2004 SD release by New Yorker Films. The SD transfer was adequate, but with plenty of flaws. Criterion's version runs at 100 minutes vs. the 96 minutes of the New Yorker release which means the New Yorker was a PAL speed-up.
According to Criterion, “This new digital transfer was created in 2K resolution... from the original 35 mm camera negative at Eclair Laboratories in Epinay-sur-Seine, France.”
The improvement over the New Yorker SD is remarkable even though this isn't the very best of Criterion's 1080p transfers. Most of the damage visible in the old SD has been cleaned up here, though it is not flawless. You can definitely see more detail in the darker shots and you can make out more detail on the walls of Fontaine's cell: perhaps this is why we get subtitles for some of the writing where we didn't get them before. The picture isn't quite as grainy as I would have expected, perhaps suggesting a little extra digital cleanup throughout.
The linear PCM mono track is of vital importance in a film where the sound design carries so much of the narrative weight. The lossless track is up to the task, preserving the clear pinging of streetcars off-screen and, of course, that scraping of the spoon in vivid detail, each sound as isolated and, sometimes, as hollow and artificial sounding as it needs to be. Optional English subtitles support the French audio.
The New Yorker DVD only had a trailer. Criterion has more than made up for that.
The copious extras cover ground that will be familiar to Bresson aficionados, but which can serve as accessible primers for viewers relatively new to his body of cinema.
“Bresson: Without a Trace” (67 min.) is the much-quoted Bresson interview conducted by Cahiers critic Francois Weyergans in 1965; it originally aired as an episode of “Cineastes de notre temps.” Bresson had the strange quality of being supremely confident in his ideas, but always seeming nervous, even apologetic, on camera. This editor has chosen to chop up much of the interview into snippets (especially in the first ten minutes) which gives the impression of Bresson delivering a series of aphorisms, something familiar to anyone who owns a dog-eared copy of Bresson's “Notes on the Cinematographer.” It also includess some very long clips (several minutes) from Bresson films. Bresson also proves prescient in his uncharacteristically effusive phrase of “Goldfinger” - “It wouldn't take much for 'Goldfinger' to become an important film, with its inventiveness, its movement towards the future.”
“The Road to Bresson” (1984, 56 min.) is a documentary by Leo de Boer and Jurrien Rood. I've never quite gotten through my barely visible bootleg copy of this, so it's a thrill to have it available in a watchable format. The two Dutch filmmakers recount their intermittent efforts to speak to Bresson during the publicity for his final film “L'argent,” mostly involving frustrated attempts to get the hotel operator to patch them through to the director's room. A lot of screen time is also devoted to interviews by directors Louis Malle, Paul Schrader, and Andrei Tarkovsky as well as actress Dominique Sanda. And we get a sort-of guest appearance by Orson Welles.
“The Essence of Forms” (2010, 46 min.) is a recent documentary by Pierre-Henri Gibert. This feature includes interviews with Francois Leterrier (who played Fontaine), director Bruno Dumont, cinematographer Pierre Lhomme, and others. Leterrier's commentary is the most interesting, as he provides even more insight into Bresson's labor-intensive way of recording sound in post-production.
“Functions of Film Sound” (2012, 20 minutes) is a somewhat unusual feature in which actor Dan Stewart reads from the well-known chapter of “Film Art” by David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson. They've contributed some of the finest writing about Bresson's use of sound. However, I'm not sure just how successful this presentation is since Stewart speaks over much of the sound in the film clips being shown. Still, it's interesting and I hope it motivates people to seek out the excellent original text.
The disc also includes an obstinate three minute Trailer that seems like a dare to audience: the last half is just a static shot of a stone wall at Montluc.
The 16-page insert booklet features an essay by author Tony Pipolo whose “Robert Bresson: A Passion for Film” is absolutely essential reading.
I recently taught a month-long course on the films of Bresson. I came prepared to defend against the usual charges: that Bresson is too austere, too opaque, too difficult. As it turns out, I didn't have to defend anything; they really liked the movies. Part of this was the luck of the draw; I was blessed with a class full of curious, engaged movie fans who were up to the challenge of watching something different in an active, attentive manner. I think it helped to start with “A Man Escaped,” which provides some familiar markers (an identifiable genre, a protagonist with a clear goal) that aren't always present in Bresson's later films. I would never dissuade anyone from watching any Bresson film with the elitist claim that he's only “suited to certain tastes.” How would I know? I do believe that anyone who's eager to dive in should start here, or possibly with “Pickpocket.” But, no, start here.
And since “Bresson: Without a Trace” makes such a strong introduction to the director (“The Road to Bresson” is not far behind) and his working methods, this impressive Criterion release is the go-to source for anyone starting their Bresson journey.