Monday, April 12, 2010
A Man Escaped
One of the simplest of Bresson and one of the best.
An absolutely edge-of-seat escape-from-prison suspense drama. Bresson himself was a POW and this is closely based on a true incident, but not his own. Fontaine, a member of the French Resistance during WW2, is captured and imprisoned by the Gestapo. On the way to prison, he tries to escape from the car carrying him in hand-cuffs, is captured and beaten. He immediately starts planning an elaborate escape, regarded an impossibility by his fellow prisoners. He spends a month dislodging two planks from the door with the help of spoons sharpened like chisels by grinding them on the floor. Next he manages to manufacture ropes from the materials available in the cell and finally three hooks fashioned from the frames of a glass window, to lodge the ropes on the walls that have to be traversed. The sounds of gunfire are a daily reminder of the executions in the precincts of the jail. The inmates maintain a tenuous communication and a community of spirit in their mutual concern and encouragement, being joined by a common cause against a hated and despised enemy.
From the conception through the slow and meticulous planning and patient working out to the final leap to freedom or death, there is many a slip and twist and turn. Orsini, another captive who tries to escape is caught and executed. Fontaine himself is plagued by doubts and hesitation. Finally, the horizon of time shrinks when his own imminent execution is pronounced. At the same time, he has a room-mate, who must either be trusted or killed. And there is the doubting old man Blanchet, who has resigned himself to his fate. We see the gradual unfolding of a man's spirit as he grapples with himself, resolving his uncertainties bit by bit, prodded by events in his environment.
Bresson's clinically neutral style is very much in evidence in this early film. It is almost an exercise in cold logic--what Tarkovsky called "sculpting in time". The actors, or "models" as he would term them, are like mannequins forbidden to make any effort towards acting. Only the involuntary facial twitches and shades of creasing betray the mind behind. That is how people usually are, making no extra effort at "expression". If the face is the mirror of the soul, or it's screen, no need to paint it. It is more from the arrangement and movements of the persons and the objects and the sounds of wood and metal that the audience must join the dots to complete the picture. Utter economy is the byword. The beatings are off-screen (the audience anyway knows that nobody is actually beaten, explains Bresson). Fontaine kills a guard behind a wall, and we are spared the slightest detail so we can imagine our gruesome worst. The sounds of doors opening or closing, the sharpened spoon dislodging the planks or the metal rod creaking as it is bent, are heard loud and fearsome as they must have sounded to the prisoner, since it is made clear at the outset that detection would mean sure death. Bresson commmunicates himself through the soundtrack. At one point, he uses both his hands to stop the pounding of his heart. Fontaine is no superman.
The musical score comprising a Mass of Mozart surges triumphantly across several passages. It's a film about hope, optimism and victory over unsurmountable odds. Various symbolical interpretations are suggested for the film but it seems better to leave well alone, except that there are prisons other than the ones administered by the Gestapo. To quote from Tim Cawkwell: "The English title, A Man Escaped, does not convey the full meaning of the French one: Un Condamné à mort s’est échappé. It is important that we understand the escape is not just from prison but from death. And actually more than death: Fontaine’s escape in the film is from damnation." The worst thing, it is said, is not death. It is defeat and loss of self respect, which is tantamount to living death. In that sense, even Orsini, whose attempt fails, triumphs in making the attempt. As Fontaine tells the pastor (another prisoner), god helps those who help themselves. Perhaps it is in defiance of destiny that we achieve humanness.