A Man Escaped Review
When any film makes the claim that is “based on a true story”, it’s usually wise to take such pronouncements with a hefty pinch of salt, for while it may be based on real characters and events, directorial style and technique inevitably play a large part, as do choices on what to show and what to leave out in order to make the story work best in narrative and cinematic terms for its intended audience. When Robert Bresson claims at the start of A Man Escaped (Un condamné à mort s’est échappé) that “This is a true story. I told it as it happened, without embellishment, you can however believe that to be the absolute truth. If there is any director capable of avoiding the typical narrative conventions of the Resistance movie, the war movie and the story of a prison break, of breaking the conventions of movie making itself and getting to the heart of the true human emotions and characteristics that lie beneath, it’s surely Robert Bresson.
A Man Escaped tells the story of Resistance fighter André Devigny, in his own words, and his escape from the Montluc fortress in Lyon where 10,000 other men were imprisoned and 7,000 lost their lives during the Nazi reign of terror. I may submit to such clichés as a reviewer, but you’ll not find it anywhere in Bresson’s treatment, the director handling events with customary emotional distance, clarity and precision, showing sacrifice, courage, bravery and heroism, but viewing them as human qualities, never glorifying them or elevating them above other qualities such as compassion, caution, circumspection or even tacit encouragement. Even expectations of how to generate tension are overturned, the film’s full French title alone (A Man Escaped from a Death Sentence) giving the game completely away. Nevertheless, A Man Escaped remains a very tense and moving film, showing how one man through ingenuity and perseverance manages to escape, but in showing the obstacles that have to be overcome – emotional as much as practical – he also gives an accurate and truthful sense of the terrors that he is escaping from, as well testify to the experience of the thousands of men who weren’t so lucky.
Bresson masterfully and impressively manages to convey completely the sensations of what it means for Fontaine, a Resistance fighter, arrested for espionage and bomb attacks, to be locked up alone in his cell and condemned to death. Principally, Bresson focuses on how the man strives to retain the human qualities that his imprisonment and treatment at the hands of the Nazi’s attempt to take away from him. Little sounds of life in the neighbouring cell make all the difference, as do words of encouragement from other inmates, and the idea that there is still a wider world outside that he can contact surreptitiously through smuggled message. Those little victories give Fontaine the strength to keep going, to never give up, and believe that there is a way out. It’s necessary to always remain vigilant and careful, but the condemned man is determined to escape at the first opportunity – as he demonstrated even on the way to prison – despite the gravity of the consequences should he fail.
Without needing to be over-explicit, Bresson makes those consequences abundantly clear, with the disappearance of other prisoners, the sounds of executions, and men even being shot for being in possession of a pencil. Even the sounds of footsteps of guards outside the door as Fontaine makes his preparations for escape, create an unbearable tension, one never sure (even despite the film’s title) whether the firing squad will come for him before he has the opportunity to make his move. That dramatic tension is maintained through Bresson’s precise technique and brilliance as a filmmaker, with not a false note struck, not a gesture out of place and not a word superfluous to requirements. It’s expression reduced to the essential, through pace and rhythm, through light, shade and darkness.
Minimalist it may be, but Bresson is, at this stage anyway, not also above using music to underscore his intentions. Unsurprisingly however, the choice of music is not what one would normally expect to find in such a movie. The director only uses short snippets of the Kyrie from Mozart’s Great Mass in C Minor (surely one of the greatest pieces of music ever composed), but the music and its tenor suffuses the whole film, indicating grace, nobility, solemnity, yet at the same time being stirring and inspirational. Certainly the characteristics Bresson is striving to convey. The religious aspect of the choice of music cannot be overlooked either in a Bresson film, the director through it achieving a tone and character not unlike that of his treatment in The Trial of Joan of Arc, and there are other obvious similarities between the demeanour and disposition of Fontaine and Joan of Arc. Despite their confinement, both remain unwavering in their faith and self-assurance, never giving in to despair, never doubting for a second the rightness of their cause or flinching from the sacrifice that has to be made. The sacrifice here is not so much on the part of Fontaine, as in that of others who have led the groundwork for escape but failed, setting an example and a path for others to follow. Fontaine however is prepared to fail, leaving instructions that others may also profit from his efforts.
This is evidently a strongly Christian viewpoint, and that is certainly the tone Bresson intends to convey, that conviction being underlined by words quoted from the Bible by a priest also held in the prison. It’s also a strongly humanist stance, Bresson finding in Fontaine noble characteristics of determination, bravery, consideration for others, but most importantly trust. All the condemned man’s plans could come to nothing when a young man is placed in the same cell as him, days before he plans to escape, and he has to make a difficult decision about whether to risk taking the man along or killing him. A Man Escaped then is certainly a war film about courage and the fight for freedom, but that message is not delivered in a typically celebratory manner at the expense of the enemy - but rather it treats liberty as a deep-rooted human need, one indeed that is essential in order to retain one’s humanity, and hence one worth striving to regain.
A Man Escaped is released in the UK by Artificial Eye. The film is presented on a dual-layer disc, in PAL format, and is encoded for Region 2.
There are a few tramline scratches on the print in one or two places, some grain is evident, a slight softness and a few faint flecks. Detail however is excellent, as are textures and the greyscale tones, which show a good range of tones between the strong blacks and the clear whites. Progressively encoded, the image is relatively stable. There is some flickering, but it seems to be in the brightness levels, and is not overly pronounced. Unlike the other two Gaumont Bresson titles released by Artificial Eye (Lancelot du Lac and The Devil, Probably), A Man Escaped is on a dual-layer disc, but that extra space would seem to be for the inclusion of an hour-long documentary extra feature In any case, there doesn’t appear to be any problems with compression artefacts on this or any of the other titles.
The audio track is principally made up of a narration, occasional dialogue and low sound effects, with brief bursts of music. The Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack presents all these elements clearly, with no noticeable analogue background hiss or distortion, though evidently it shows signs of its age. It could hardly be expected to sound much better than this and it doesn’t need to be.
English subtitles are provided and are optional. The font is white and can be clearly read at all times.
There is one good extra feature between the three Bresson titles released in this batch by Artificial Eye (co-incidentally focussing, with excerpts on the same three films) and it’s a 1984 documentary film made by two Dutch film students Jurriën Rood and Leo de Baer, The Road to Bresson. Eliciting contributions from Andrei Tarkovsky, Louis Malle, Dominique Sanda, Paul Schrader and from Bresson himself while at the Cannes Film Festival for the presentation of the 81 year-old director’s final film L’Argent, the documentary tries to identify the unique characteristics and themes evident in the director’s films. Tarkovsky has pertinent and insightful comments to make about The Trial of Joan of Arc, Malle testifies to Bresson’s importance as the purest of French auteur directors, Schrader to the elusive quality of both his work and the man himself, while Sanda provides an all-important actor’s perspective. The most illuminating comments however come from the brief interview with Bresson himself on pessimism, moral, beauty and lucidity in his work. We also have the incredible sight of seeing Welles (the Cannes Jury President), Tarkovsky and Bresson sharing a stage together.
The only other extra feature is a one-page text screen of Bresson’s brief Filmography.
A remarkable work from one of the greatest artists and humanists to work in cinema, A Man Escaped has the virtue of being a deep, truthful and inspirational film about the important qualities that a person can aspire to – the principal being the attainment of liberty - while at the same time being a tense, thrilling and exciting war-time Resistance thriller. The presentation of this magnificent film by Artificial Eye is excellent, the image stable and well-toned, the feature supported with an excellent, illuminating documentary.