Un condamne a mort s'est echappe ou Le vent souffle ou il veut

(A Man Escaped, France - 1956)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Francois Leterrier, Charles Le Clainche
Genre: Drama
Director: Robert Bresson
Screenplay: Robert Bresson based on Andre Devigny's memoir
Cinematography: Leonce-Henri Burel
Composer: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Runtime: 100 minutes

Robert Bresson was certainly one of, arguably the most, unique and original filmmaker in the history of cinema. His films were revered or dismissed because he was peerless, which seemed to always set the discussion on the merits of what he eliminated to make them matchless. While Ernest Hemingway was certainly onto something when he said, "It's not what you put in a story that makes it successful, it's what you leave out," ultimately what's important is what a work of art does contain. And thus the greatness of Bresson may lie in an understanding of what actually works that few are willing to admit, because it quite simply shatters almost every conventional notion about filmmaking.

Terms always limit Bresson 's method of cinematic expression. While there is some truth to realist, minimalist, etc. they all imply as much that isn't true of his work. I suppose he could be called an indispensablist, if such a term existed. Bresson's desire was to put the internal on screen. Though the final film is steered to the most minor detail, he more or less wanted to be surprised for his actual goal was the bringing to light the ineffable, the soul of all humanity. This led him to never use the same "models" (his word for the people in his films) again, because they'd been fully mined, the thrill was gone.

Le cinematographe was the name Bresson gave to his system, which was based on subtracting as many exterior elements as possible to allow the audience to focus their attention on the interior. If film could utilize all five human senses Bresson would certainly have focused on each one, but with the limits of the medium he was left with sight and sound. What makes Bresson different than almost every filmmaker of the sound era is that he put the latter above the former. It's not surprising because our eyes are our primary sense, but their dominance also makes them the least attuned, the most easily distracted. More importantly, the eyes have no imagination. That's a big reason to fear what technology is doing to the world, as everything is constantly being defined for us, thus allowing for the elimination of difference. Anyway, what Bresson understood was the ears were imaginative while the eyes were not. When Lt. Fontaine (Francois Leterrier) hears the sound of a bird somewhere outside his prison, he not only imagines the bird, but the trees, the sky, the entire scene. And he not only defines what is probably there, but its greater meaning, in this case freedom. Bresson refuses to show us what the Lt. sees because that allows us to imagine it to, and if what we imagine is different, all the better. Any time Bresson can convey something with a sound rather than an image he does so, and throughout his work the impact is profound because it engages the audience.

Microphone placement is crucial in Bresson's work. Probably the only other filmmaker where it's of comparable regard is Abbas Kiarostami, who studied the work of Bresson. The fact Bresson not only doesn't employ a traditional soundtrack, but almost eliminates music altogether (Mozart mass music is a few times during the film when the prisoners are outside as a representation of divine grace and brotherhood) is not really important. The elimination of this highly manipulative screen might be a positive more often than a negative, but either way it's nothing earth shattering. What's important is the lack of piped noise allows us to focus on the sound effects. A good deal of the film consists of Fontaine alone in his cell working on his escape, dismantling the door and making his escape tools. As the slightest hint of him doing anything suspicious will get him shot on the spot, the sounds outside his box are his only guide. Sounds are his contact to his neighboring prisoners; one's lack of replies gets Fontaine suspicious. Sounds also represent Fontaine's quest for freedom; the birds flying free keep his hopes alive. Because these sounds are not competing with any artificial noise, they can be amplified far more than usual, which helps them get the attention they deserve. Through Bresson wasn't the first to record sounds separately, he certainly put the most effort into a scoreless soundtrack.

Bresson was often accused of being a pretentious bore because he attempted to express how people are rather than what they pretend to be. But that didn't lead him down the documentary path because people are representing themselves any time the camera is on. What exactly Bresson did was tough to explain. He filtered reality through a complex relationship between image and sound, creating a whole based on their interrelation. He created a film language that didn't take anything out of context because that would not yield the proper meaning. Film was the whole, a sentence, and thus any part in isolation was a word, something with meaning but you can't guess it without the proper context. That said, he regularly used abstraction, heightening certain aspects, particularly sounds. Bresson tried to always film what was real, thus he didn't use sets or actors (anyone who uses their body or voice to express). His job was combining and ordering them in the most effective way, and it was the combination of stripping the scene bare and then highlighting what was left that resulted in his own brand of realistic expressionism.

At first glance Bresson seems to repeat himself a lot. He doesn't take the easy way out and get non-actors to not act; he does it the hard way and tries to externalize internal emotion. Though not to the frame because that would cause what Bresson is working against, distraction, the film tends to present itself in two ways. When we see the Lieutenant we hear his narration. When we don't see the Lieutenant we kind of become his eyes. We see what he's looking at, but it's rarely a point of view shot, and almost always a tight shot with nothing distracting in the background. Traditionally voice over narration is used to add details, but in Bresson it often tells us little more than what we are seeing at that time. His is a reality of thought. Your actions don't exist separately from your thoughts, so the voice over is more toward the commands your brain sends to your body to act. The duplication is in fact a kind of duality. It's a method of emphasis that replaces the intonation and expression he's eliminated, again showing Bresson as not so much about subtraction but about attaining a result through purified means.

Though Lt. Fontaine eventually gets a roommate, Francois Jost (Charles Le Chainche) and the crucial decision is whether to have faith in him or crush him, much of the film is a solo act. Such films almost always fail because they focus on the exterior and don't know what to do in absence of "action". Bresson's duplication, in fact, serves as the film's action. While other directors sink beneath the monologues and/or swirl the camera indistinctly for reasons known only to them, Bresson maintains the illusion that more is going on by showing the event with the description of it. Again, the lack of music is the key. Rather than two or three separate elements splitting our attention, spiraling our brain in different directions, we are allowed to concentrate. Either the voice over or the doing would get tedious on it's own, but somehow when Bresson combines them he does achieve maximum effect, he achieves the illusion of more going on than really is. I can't explain how it works really, but I think it's partly because you are befuddled that so little is being revealed, and since the character is so mysterious you pay closer attention waiting for that ever so slight detail that'll reveal something about them.

Universality of character is a starting aspect of Bresson's film. I'm not talking about the usual clones or cutouts, universal because they are no more or less generic than anyone else we are presented, but that the success of Bresson is in getting past the superficial he portrays characters everyone can relate to. He portrays human nature, and in linking the images and sounds so they garner the utmost effect, he s able to reproduce the same feelings in us as his characters have, and thus elicit the same reactions. His cinema brings you far closer to the main character and their situation, allows you to replace him. People may complain that there's no backstory to his characters - about the only thing we know of Fontaine's past or future is his mother and sister have braided hair, a fact used to explain his skill in weaving an escape rope - but the major effect is there's nothing to distance you. They may also complain there's no psychology, but again that brings you closer to them rather than farther. It's not that Bresson is afraid to turn the audience off, that he's calculating how many people supposedly agree with a certain bend. He believes there's a certain amount of mystery, an inaccessibility to every character, and rather than definition he's after relevance. He knows mystery can hold interest as long as he stays on course, and providing details to explain things is usually false preaching or pseudo Freudian nonsense. Even when it isn't, if for instance Fontaine was jailed for a specific reason or activity that would let everyone who isn't involved off. But anyone can get put in prison during wartime, and it's not only a film of Andre Devigny's memoir, but of Bresson's experiences in prison camp during the beginning of WWII, and those of many others. Andre Bazin once described Bresson as dealing with the "physiology of existence", and that's really where the universality comes from. Everyone exists, so there's a certain commonality that can be found if we can get beyond using preconceived notions to explain everything away.

Humanizing techniques are carefully chosen so the inexpressive models don't come across as zombies. Bresson focuses on Fontaine's hands, which are the key to his escape. Hands though aren't a portion of the body that's judged sexually (though when the corporations are finished making every guy as gay looking as possible that could be their next attack on humanity), so they can be shown without garnering a "set" response from the audience. Rhythm is a key to Bresson's work, so a regularly moving body part is also able to convey much more. In any case, Bresson wants us to see through them, to get inside them and through his cinematic decisions find what they represent. "I was hoping to make a film about objects which would at the same time have a soul. That is to say, to reach the latter through the former."

Conventional wisdom tells us that we need suspense to make people care about certain stories, such as this one about a prison break. Bresson shows us it's complete bunk by titling his film A Man Escaped. And it's logical that he's correct because did you ever watch a prison break film where the star(s) were ultimately unsuccessful? In essence, Bresson is telling us what we already know, so in fact this big question, will they or won't they, has always been nothing more than an excuse to make the movie, it's merits (or lack thereof) thus always lying elsewhere. Bresson doesn't give us as much as other filmmakers, but quantity is rarely a substitute for quality, and what little makes it's way into the film is of unparalleled intensity.

Bresson achieves his intensity through telling the tightest story possible. He doesn't include an excess frame; the entire focus is on the task at hand. Because the concentration is complete, a feeling builds up inside the viewer, a feeling of suffocation. This is the feeling of the man imprisoned. As Bresson states in the prologue, he's telling a true story unadorned. There are many "true stories", but in fact very few give the audience any idea what it's like to be the person whose story they tell. There are too many walls put up between the audience and viewer, screens as Bresson calls them, and in the end we may think that's awful but it's a ho-hum kind of awful you forget in five minutes, not the kind that reverberates in your bones. The difference lies totally in Bresson's refusal to include scenes of distraction, put in a joke or a fight or a fun time. He is completely unrelenting, and that's what makes Fontaine's eventual freedom such a joyous event.

Suffocation is attained largely through the framing. Bresson has often been accused of being somehow lacking in technique because of cliches he avoids, but one would be hard pressed to shoot a film more effectively than A Man Escaped. Every shot that shows the imprisoned man seems a cell. The primary characteristic of a cell is that it's too damn small to live in; it's ever-present confinement. Bresson replicates this feeling for the viewer by making the prisoner seem too big for his frame. Even when he's hunched over the top of his head is still not fitting in the screen. Bresson uses a lot of close shots for the more traditional claustrophobia, but increasing the length or width of the shot does not increase the space one bit because the method of framing remains consistent.

Disorientation is a key to Bresson's style. He eschews establishing shots, and doesn't edit for continuity. He purposely confuses tense, providing past tense narration to seemingly real time visuals. You know enough to understand what's going on, but you are never allowed to firmly plant your feet. But Bresson's goal is anything but confusion; it is instead truth through simplification, through the removal of anything burdensome and not particularly important. Bresson knows that much of life is inconsistent in its consistency, especially the passage of time, which readily alternates from breeze to eternity and is different for god than for humans. What's important is not minutes, hours, months, but occurrences. Bresson sets the routine of prison life against the progress made toward escaping it. In doing this, Bresson again uses the unseen as much as the seen, with the latter usually being more important. We see things like Fontaine emptying his bucket each day, but we don't see crucial details like the guards changing shifts or trains passing by (their noise covers up the noise of Fontaine trying to escape).

The full title A Man Escaped or: The Wind Bloweth Where It Listeth hints at the religious aspect of the film, quoting Jesus' words to Nicodemus. Religion is a key to all Bresson's work, sometimes it's the specific theme, but usually he shows it in more interesting ways, focusing on the universal theme of redemption. This isn't a specifically religious film, in the way Kieslowski's aren't specifically films of chance. You are free to believe whatever you want because life is unexplainable. The odds alone make a prison escape qualify as a miracle if you want to go in that direction, but that the French Lieutenant doesn't give up his belief that he'll escape, as Bresson believes one shouldn't in their belief in god isn't the point. The prison can become a metaphor for life on earth trying to get to heaven, as the qualities required to succeed are more or less equivalent: steadfast, patient, careful of your actions, and unrelenting in effort. But they don't have to.

The religious aspect of Bresson functions cinematically in his reversal of the traditional narrative order. What has killed storytelling, so limited it's potential, is the idea that events incur feelings. Bresson's reversal of this is his most important contribution to the elimination of manipulation. It may be true that something causes you to feel a certain way, but the event coming first is more or less programming; it's when all the cliches are unleashed. Rarely an event causes something truly heartfelt, it almost has to be a complete surprise. The rest of the time, for it to truly matter, the feeling had to be there first. Otherwise while you may say something is great or terrible, terrific or tragic, it's largely because that's what you are supposed to say, because that's what the other person expects to hear. If you did care about it to begin with you are likely sincere, and if you didn't you likely aren't (or you are but it doesn't have any lasting effect). One can criticize Bresson for taking the feeling coming first to the level of mysticism, but great things rarely happen by accident. You have to put some effort, often a great deal in, if you want the positive result. Maybe Bresson's feeling first style wouldn't work for the majority of movies, but that's because they aren't about anything, not seriously. But Bresson chooses his subjects carefully, and certainly there should be no argument that a prison break is the type of subject it works for.

I haven't seen some of Bresson's probable later masterpieces like Balthazar and Mouchette, but it's hard to imagine them topping A Man Escaped. Though, like most great directors, Bresson purified his style as time went on. One can see a profound improvement between Diary of a Country Priest and A Man Escaped, which is linked directly to his near total elimination of the soundtrack. But A Man Escaped seems the perfect subject for Bresson. He's the foremost director of audience freedom no matter what the subject, and with that doubling as the subject here it's hard to imagine a more perfect work. Bresson, at least, would supply the opportunity though.



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