“When one is in prison, the most important thing is the door.”
– Robert Bresson (1)
Un condamné à mort s’est échappé ou Le vent souffle où il veut (A Man Escaped, 1956) is one of Bresson’s most sublime and understated films, in a career that consists of a series of meditational masterpieces that minutely and compassionately examine the human condition. In a career lasting more than 40 years, Bresson completed only 13 feature films, but each is an artistic triumph. Of all of Bresson’s films, A Man Escaped, along with his long out of print book Notes on Cinematography (2), should be required reading and viewing for all film students, as examples of economy, simplicity, and striking proof of the power of images to convey ideas, emotions and faith. As with all of his films, Bresson in A Man Escaped strips away all that is unnecessary, concentrating on the essence of the title character’s struggle to escape from a military prison, creating a world of perpetual unease and unceasing struggle.
As always, Bresson’s interest in free will and his deep religious faith was a key informing factor in the film’s creation. As critic David Walsh notes,
Bresson had wanted to entitle the film “Aide-toi” (“Help yourself”), part of the French expression, “Aide-toi, le ciel t’aidera”: in other words, “Heaven helps those who help themselves”. He commented: “I would like to show this miracle: an invisible hand over the prison, directing what happens and causing such and such a thing to succeed for one and not for another… the film is a mystery… the Spirit breathes where it will.” (3)
A lifelong Catholic, Bresson displayed in all his films an unerring faith in the guiding hand of divine intervention, but at the same time, required of his protagonists the act of belief in that power. Free will, in Bresson’s world, is not an illusion, nor is the presence of God; but without human agency, all one’s best intentions will not suffice. One must act in order to bring faith to life; responsibility for one’s own actions is a key to the moral order of Bresson’s spiritual universe.
The soundtrack of A Man Escaped is mostly free of dialogue, with the very sparing use of Mozart’s Great Mass in C minor at key points in the film; but unlike most cinema, Bresson uses the sounds of prison life to create his own “musical” track; the jangle of the warders’ keys, cell doors clanging shut, the sound of trains passing in the night, the shuffle of footsteps down the prison corridors – as Bresson put it, “the noises must become music” (4), as a direct antidote to “[t]he number of films that are patched up with music! People flood a film with music. They are preventing us from seeing that there is nothing in those images.” (5)
For Bresson, the images are everything, along with the unerring precision with which they are edited together to create a world that is hermetically sealed, and unsparingly distanced from the viewer. As always, Bresson’s camera movement is a model of economy and precision; in many instances, the camera lingers on an image for what seems an eternity, to accentuate the tedium and endless waiting of prison life. But what is perhaps most striking about A Man Escaped is that it manages to create an atmosphere of almost unbearable suspense despite the fact that the title gives the basic narrative arc of the film away; the title character of the film does indeed escape his imprisonment, but the means by which he accomplishes this are tortuous indeed.
Based on the memoirs of André Devigny, who escaped from Fort Montlucin Lyonin 1943, during World War II, A Man Escaped tells the story of Fontaine (François Leterrier), a member of the French Resistance who is imprisoned by the Nazis in Montluc prison after an unsuccessful escape attempt. The prison is a forbidding, inhuman structure; indeed, the opening shot of the film shows us a plaque memorialising the 7000 men who died within the prison’s walls during the war. Thus, the basic situation of the film is set up from the outset; for the next 99 minutes, we will be witnesses – in every sense of the word – to one man’s fight for survival against almost insurmountable odds. Fontaine is thrown into a prison cell, and almost immediately begins to strategise an escape plan, despite the enormous risks involved. His plans are deliberate and methodical, but the risks are enormous.
Another prisoner, Orsini (Jacques Ertaud) tries his own escape attempt but fails, and the consequences are severe; a brutal beating and a death sentence. Despite the tedium and monotony of prison life, Fontaine continues in his methodical preparations for escape, only to be told at the last minute that he has been sentenced to death for his Resistance activities. Returned to his cell, Fontaine discovers he has a new companion, François Jost (Charles Le Clainche) a 16-year-old soldier who is supposedly sympathetic to the Nazis. Now Fontaine has a new problem; his escape is nearly imminent, and he has to decide whether to take Jost with him, or to kill him. At length, and after much deliberation, Fontaine decides to trust Jost with the details of his plan. The film ends with their successful escape over the rooftop of the prison, and the two men slip away silently into the night, as A Man Escaped comes to its predestined conclusion.
Unlike such mock heroic films as John Sturges’ The Great Escape (1963) or Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17 (1953), A Man Escaped never succumbs to the clichéd formulas of wartime dramas; as with all of Bresson’s films, A Man Escaped is a film unlike any other World War II prison escape drama, and takes us into the mind and heart of its protagonist with careful, incisive imagery, in which each shot and edit point is chosen with the greatest possible care. As Bresson himself noted, there should be “[n]othing too much, nothing deficient” (6), and A Man Escaped admirably lives up to this directive. Indeed, André Devigny’s original account of his wartime experiences, published first in the journal Figaro litteraire, and later expanded into book form, impressed Bresson because it was a “very precise, even very technical account of the escape […] a thing of great beauty […] written in an extremely reserved, very cool tone” (7).
This “extremely reserved, very cool tone” certainly matched Bresson’s own approach to the cinema, in which he always tried to use as little as possible to achieve his desired effects, with a considerable amount of the film’s action actually taking place off-screen, conveyed to us only through the soundtrack as background noise. Bresson himself had spent some time in a Nazi prison during the early part of the war, and as Tony Pipolo notes, Bresson “was in cell and heard someone being whipped through a door and then a body falling”. For Bresson, the experience was “ten times worse than if I had seen the whipping” (8), and exemplifies the filmmaker’s essential strategy of letting the viewer’s imagination fill in the supposed “gaps” in the visuals. It’s a classic use of off-screen violence; whatever we might be shown, it can’t possibly have the same power as something that has been suggested, or implied.
As always, Bresson strove for as much verisimilitude as possible in the production of the film; the exteriors for A Man Escaped were actually shot atFortMontluc, although the prison cell Devigny occupied was recreated in the studio, and Devigny served as technical advisor on the film (9). And while much has been made of Bresson’s use of what he called “models” in his films – the director’s terminology for the use of non-professional actors, which he used to create a world in which emotion and conventional cinematic performance styles are utterly absent – François Leterrier’s performance as Fontaine is utterly on target; resolute, determined, continuing on in his struggle to survive and escape from confinement, no matter how overwhelming the odds against him may be.
In a conversation early on in the film a priest tells Fontaine that “God will save you”, to which Fontaine replies matter-of-factly “only if he has help”. This, in brief, sums up the moral universe of Bresson’s films, and the world of A Man Escaped. We may be in prison, but we can escape. Faith is essential, but it can only do part of the work. In the final result, we are responsible for our fates, even as God seeks, in Bresson’s view, to intervene on our behalf. But our own actions, and our determination despite the obstacles in our path, are the most important factors in our survival and in overcoming the evils that life confronts us with. For Bresson, A Man Escaped is the perfect expression of the director’s own view of life, and personal accountability; we must work towards liberty, even as existence strives to shackle us in chains.
- Tony Pipolo, Robert Bresson: A Passion for Film,OxfordUniversity Press,New York, 2010, p. 115.
- Robert Bresson, Notes on Cinematography, trans. Jonathan Griffin, Urizen Books,New York, 1977.
- David Walsh, David. “French Filmmaker Robert Bresson (1901-1999),” World Socialist Website 20 January 2000: http://www.wsws.org/articles/2000/jan2000/bres-j20.shtml.
- Bresson, p. 10.
- Bresson, p. 71.
- Bresson, p. 20.
- Bresson quoted in Pipolo, p. 103.
- Bresson quoted in Pipolo, p. 113.
- Pipolo, p. 102.
Un condamné à mort s’est échappé ou Le vent souffle où il veut/A Man Escaped (1956 France 99 mins)
Prod Co: Gaumont/ Nouvelles Éditions de Films Prod: Alain Poiré, Jean Thuillier Dir: Robert Bresson Scr: Robert Bresson, based on the memoirs of André Devigny Phot: Léonce-Henri Burel Ed: Raymond Lamy Art Dir: Pierre Charbonnier
Cast: François Leterrier, Charles Le Clainche, Maurice Beerblock, Roland Monod, Jacques Ertaud, Jean Paul Delhumeau