Although he did not lead the life of the recluse, as is typically ascribed to Stanley Kubrick, Robert Bresson tended to clam up about biographical details, and it’s this caginess, combined with his distinctive way of making movies, that has often led critics to grasp at several straws, in the interest of choosing the best “-ism” with which to classify his work. Whether or not you view A Man Escaped, the director’s 1956 masterpiece, through the lens of Jansenism, Catholicism, materialism, transcendentalism, Pascal-ism, fatalism, or (given his later works) nihilism, the movie is undeniably autobiographical, at least loosely. Before he made his first feature (1943’s Les Anges du Péché), Bresson spent 18 months in a German prison, presumably for involvement with the French Resistance; the film’s protagonist, Fontaine (played by François Leterrier), is first seen being carted off to similar incarceration in Lyon in 1943.
Fontaine’s very first act is to attempt an escape, which the title character of Procès de Jeanne d’Arc would claim is a fundamental right of the POW. Actually, let me correct that: His first act is to examine the tools of his inevitable liberation (his carelessly unshackled hands), then to test the walls of his first cell (the unlocked car door). As he sets out on foot, and is collected quickly by his Nazi custodians, the camera never leaves the car, but remains on the unblinking calm of a fellow detainee, who is cuffed, and who doesn’t move an inch. More than honoring the law of “If he got away, there would be no movie,” the scene seems to convey the idea that Fontaine hasn’t yet earned his escape, that he begins the film in a raw, untested form.
It took me three viewings to notice that his second escape attempt isn’t the one that’s described over the course of most of the film’s running time (the meticulous erosion of the door slats, the prison-yard consultations, the arrival of an angry young cellmate), but is nearly invisible, unless you’re looking for it. After Fontaine arrives at the prison he’s made to stand facing a wall, then led away by three guards. Nearly in a flash, we see a dark sleeve pick up (or attempt to pick up) a shovel, and there’s a cut to Fontaine’s nearly unconscious body being carried in on a stretcher. Possibly only a frame-by-frame examination of the sequence would reveal that the arm that goes for the shovel is clothed in the dark sleeve of Fontaine’s coat.
A Man Escaped seems to be one of the few Bresson films that both his fans and detractors can agree on, which probably has a lot to do with the active-versus-passive quality of Fontaine, one of the most resourceful and persistent heroes in Bresson’s filmography. Generally speaking, viewers, even hardcore cinephiles who claim to be immune to the powers of identification and empathy in movie scripts, respond better to an active hero as opposed to a passive one, hence the charges often leveled against Mouchette, L’Argent, and Au Hasard Balthazar, which some find off-putting in what may seem, according to the most cynical interpretation, to be uninstructive tales of God’s misbegotten creatures who are beaten and beaten until they die.
On the other hand, Fontaine, the most on-the-nose of the director’s lean-and-hungry surrogates, is a man who works against his jailers with his hands, his eyes, his mind, and his tireless pluck, giving the film access to our sympathies via fundamental storytelling as well as our feelings regarding the heroes of the Resistance, who were the “elemental actors of fearless opposition” writ large in the broader WWII narrative, i.e. the film’s meta-narrative. While A Man Escaped gains power from these two levels of story, there’s the material and spiritual thematic layers, which are carried out in watching Fontaine systematically engineer the means of his escape while remaining steadfast in his focus; even his momentary feelings of doubt seems to complete some variation on the stations of the cross. What’s dazzling here is the paradoxical coexistence of a story that’s both right before our eyes, as well as invisible and intangible. In many ways, the uncanny sound mix—Bresson, like Tati, was one of the great “sound architects” of the cinema, often constructing a film’s soundtrack, dialogue and effects alike, entirely in the studio—plays a large role in the latter.
Bresson gets too little credit for his prologues and title cards. Lancelot du Lac opens with a scene of shocking violence as faceless knights carve each other up in a gloomy forest, before segueing to a long title crawl, backed by British Isles piping music, revved up to battle tempo. The haunting opening of Au Hasard Balthazar alternates a donkey braying with Schubert’s “Piano Sonata No. 20.” The iron deathtrap-like ATM face is the first thing we see in L’Argent. For A Man Escaped, the first title card we see is written in the director’s own hand—bringing to mind filmmaker/theorist Alexandre Astruc’s concept of the “caméra-stylo”—against a long shot of gray prison walls. There’s a cut to a plaque memorializing French POWs, then a pan right to a more traditional Gaumont roll call, as Mozart’s “Great Mass in C Minor” fades in.
Following Diary of a Country Priest by five years, A Man Escaped is the director’s second film in “the Bresson mode,” as well as, at 99 minutes, his second longest, and it requires as much self-acclimation from the viewer as any of his others. Although rigorously committed to precise narrative delineation and wasteless editing, Bresson’s style is utterly alien to the way films are usually made, to the point that, as a colleague noted, he rebuilds the world with each edit. A Man Escaped, with a spoiler in its very title, is the axiomatic Bresson film, in that it’s about what it’s about (an imprisoned man escapes), but, at the same time, rises above its earthly architecture, in each moment conveying what’s within—and what’s outside.