Robert Bresson’s films are charged with a peculiarly exhilarating common sense, as the filmmaker’s well-known contempt for conventional cinematic artifice ultimately reflects a worldview that refuses to indulge self-pity—a stance he would test time and again by choosing subject matter that pertains to extreme, unrelenting suffering. His films are existentialist in a fashion that undermines the inherent egotism of man’s propensity for existentialist torment (in this context, it’s no coincidence, then, that arguably the most heroic character in a Bresson film isn’t a man). Every Bresson character’s life represents, at its simplest, a varying series of processes to be rationally navigated regardless of any potential higher plane of meaning or existence, and his characters only earn reprieve from their suffering after arriving at an instinctive form of this realization, after escaping a metaphorical prison of their own self-regard.
The prison in A Man Escaped, of course, is literal as well as figurative. In the opening scene, Fontaine (François Leterrier) is clearly due for a Bressonian coming of age. Despite his dire predicament, there’s a shifty quality about Fontaine that discourages audience sympathy, as he seems just as likely to pick your pocket as Michel from Pickpocket. It’s 1943, Fontaine has been locked up in a Gestapo prison for conspiring with the French Resistance, and it’s clear that he won’t leave the prison alive. The first scene establishes that Fontaine clearly has conviction and courage, but he’s dogged by traditional youthful impulsiveness. If he’s to live, he’ll have to divorce himself of the understandable panic of the immediate situation and give himself over fully to the minute logistics of concocting an escape that can be (somewhat) reasonably expected to succeed.
The plot, based on the true case of Andre Devigny, is superficially similar to the classic prison-movie scenario that often offers audiences a dubiously sentimental story of self-actualization along with a few instances of titillating B-movie unpleasantness. Bresson, unsurprisingly, follows a different path. Accepting the symbolism of the prison itself as inherently obvious, he emphasizes with amazing clarity the steps that Fontaine takes to eventually spring himself from prison. Disconnected from everyone, longing for a sense of hope, Fontaine plunges himself into the minutiae of escape: Forging a wedge from a spoon, using a shoe as a hammer, straightening wire from a bedspring, binding rope from discarded clothing. Fontaine maintains his sanity by necessarily evolving to see his newly endangered life as a puzzle to be solved.
A Man Escaped is so absorbing because Bresson’s traditional methods of de-emphasis imbue the film with an almost maddening tension. The prisoner’s panic and desperation is felt, but rarely seen. We can barely read Fontaine’s emotions because he can’t afford to allow them to distract from the task at hand, and so the details of Fontaine’s preparation for escape come to be imbued with a pregnant, repressed urgency as well as an ironic beauty; large sequences of a door being gradually chipped open are more suspenseful than any ultra-violent action extravaganza. Fontaine is saved by the cleansing power of precise, detailed work, of pride in craft, and for that he earns the grace note that occurs at the end of the film. A Man Escaped is as much Bresson’s story as it is Devigny’s—a portrait of a man’s methods to define life through a rigorous, unwavering devotion to craftsmanship.
This transfer was created in a 2K resolution from the original 35mm negative. Sharpness varies at times, but the image is generally crisp and attractive. Whites, which have had a tendency to glare in the prints I've seen, are more consistently rendered than before, and the blacks are richer and deeper. Some grain appears to have been removed from the image, but a balance has been struck that manages to avoid that sanitized, inappropriately modern crystal-clarity that can annoy cinephiles. The sound is clear and impressively free of white noise, which is particularly important for a film as meticulously mixed as A Man Escaped.
The supplements are most valuable for offering not one but two rare interviews with Robert Bresson. "Bresson Without a Trace" is the first on-camera interview the director recorded, and in it he discusses his familiar methods, such as encouraging his actors, which he regarded as "models," to express as little conventional emotion as possible. Bresson's mostly absent from The Road to Bresson, which features legends such as Paul Schrader, Louis Malle, and Andrei Tarkovsky discussing their hero's themes and techniques, but he memorably appears at the end, after some prodding, to urgently encourage other filmmakers to push the boundaries of film as a medium rather than relying on the static conventions of theater. "The Essence of Forms" is comprised of contemporary interviews with past Bresson collaborators as well as famous fans, and basically covers the same ground as the other documentaries. Though it occasionally states the obvious, "Functions of Film Sound" provides an engaging shout-out to A Man Escaped's rigorous sound design. Rounding out the package is the theatrical trailer and an excellent essay by film scholar Tony Pipolo.
A prison-escape film as work of transcendental art, A Man Escaped is a great movie as well as an ideal introduction to the work of Robert Bresson.