Saturday, March 30, 2013

I Have A Way

"Bresson is a rarity among filmmakers: he apparently knows exactly what he does and why he does it... any study of Bresson must take into account his astute self-criticism."
 - Paul Schrader, Transcendental Style In Film

"A MAN ESCAPED would seem of all Bresson's films the most plot-oriented; it is about a prison break. But the title dispenses with any possibility of suspense - UN CONDAMNE A MORT S'EST ECHAPPE (a man condemned to death has escaped)."
- Paul Schrader, ibid. 

“‘Fear Eats the Soul’... there’s more truth in that title than most whole films.” 

* * *

Last year, I participated in The Skuriels, a joint effort between the Skandies and Muriels to come up with the twenty greatest films ever made (released in conjunction with Sight and Sound's decennial list). When considering my own ballot, my "short list" of around 150 films was weighed heavily toward certain directors: Scorsese, Lynch, Hitchcock, Welles, Tourneur, Dreyer, etc. etc. Of all the repeat filmmakers, Robert Bresson probably had the most impressive track record; six of the eight films of his I'd seen were contenders for my top ten.

This dull little accounting exercise has a point: I don't think there's a more consistent (and consistently great) filmmaker than Robert Bresson. MOUCHETTE, AU HASARD BALTHAZAR, DIARY OF A COUNTRY PRIEST and especially later (even more idiosyncratic) efforts like L'ARGENT and LANCELOT DU LAC represent a boldly stubborn way of making films that few filmmakers can approach. Only Kubrick springs to mind as someone with an equally individualistic oeuvre. However, where Kubrick's vision was decidedly humanistic, Bresson -- as indicated in title of Schrader's book -- aimed for a spiritual transcendence in his work.

Long story short: I picked A MAN ESCAPED (which makes its Bluray debut this week, courtesy of the Criterion Collection) as my representative Bresson film because I think it is both Bresson's most accessible film and the most unadulteratedly "Bressonian" of  his works.1

A MAN ESCAPED tells the story of Lieutenant Fontaine's 1943 escape from a Nazi prison in Lyon, France. The film is based on the memoirs of Andre Devigny and in an opening title card Bresson claims to present his story "without adornment." Further research reveals that -- while he might not have adorned it, per se -- Bresson did strip Devigny's story of any potentially complicated details. Devigny was arrested for murdering a police officer and was tortured by the infamous Klaus Barbie while in prison. He was also recaptured immediately2 after escape.

Bresson eschews these sort of details in order to make A MAN ESCAPED take place in an almost ahistorical, ageographical context. What Bresson is concerned with is not so much the Screenwriting 101 business of plot points and rising action and conflict resolution. Bresson views Fontaine's struggle as a spiritual one.

It can't be a coincidence that Criterion has decided to release A MAN ESCAPED during Easter week. As alluded to above, the film's full title is UN CONDAMNE A MORT S'EST ECHAPPE OU LE VENT SOUFFLE OU IL VEUT ("a man condemned to death has escaped or the wind blows where it listeth").
That casually tacked on "or" title is a big key to unlocking the film: "the wind blows where it listeth" comes from Jesus's conversation with Nicodemus in the Gospel of John (the same conversation that includes the ubiquitous John 3:16). The particular phrase Bresson chooses is one of Jesus's more confounding phrases, describing the activity of the spirit (both the soul of man and the capital-S Holy Spirit). The full context: "The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit."What does all this have to do with escaping from a Nazi prison? Bresson chooses the very simple premise of his title to represent the Christian's struggle for redemption. Is it faith or works that save man's soul? In this case, is it Fontaine's hope of salvation or his actions toward escape that save him? The film stands at the crux (pun intended) of this (I would argue false) dichotomy: there can be no salvation of the soul/escape from prison without a healthy mixture of faith and works.

The film is so heavily underpinned with Christian theology that I'm afraid analyzing it too much will make it sound like a painfully didactic Sunday School lesson. We're not just talking some vague religious sentiment or spirituality, A MAN ESCAPED is a theological treatise disguised as an exciting man-vs.-Nazi adventure. Bresson's subtext is also his text, Christ is everywhere. He's in the figure of Fontaine -- not too long into the film, we see him with a bleeding head, being spat on by guards, and revealing a back striped with blood from the abuses he's suffered:

And then there's another prisoner who's executed after he tries to escape. Before his death, he reveals a fundamental flaw in Fontaine's plan which Fontaine then corrects. "He had to blow it so you could make it," observes one of Fontaine's fellow prisoners in an obvious paraphrase of Christ's ministry.

How Bresson buries all of this within his riveting narrative is the secret to his genius. It would take much more research and time on my part to really delve any further into it. More importantly, A MAN ESCAPED succeeds in terms of a suspenseful prison escape film. Even if the title spoils the outcome, the tension holds from the first frame.

The opening sequence is essentially a microcosm of the film -- Fontaine attempts escape while being transported to prison. It's a masterful few minutes -- a suspense set piece worthy of Hitchcock.

Without establishing who Fontaine is -- only that he's in hot water and hungry for escape -- the film instantly orients us into his head (where we'll be for the next hundred minutes or so). And it's all through a very simple, very rhythmic montage.

We see Fontaine:

His POV:

His hand inching toward the door handle:

And the gear shifting of the oblivious Nazi driver:

There are maybe two dozen cuts, building toward Fontaine dashing out of the car, only to be picked up by two Gestapo. The whole sequence is wordless, scoreless... all we hear are the VERY selective natural sounds Bresson wants us to: the car engine, the gear shift, the clang of a trolley. All of it adds up to an extremely exciting open, worthy of any hook contrived by spec script scribes. And the stomach-coiling tone of the scene doesn't relent for the rest of the film; A MAN ESCAPED is -- above all -- a masterful thriller.

The Criterion Blu looks amazing (for the record, I had to take the opening images above and the image of Fontaine's back from the old New Yorker DVD, which is vastly inferior) but it's the sound mix that is truly astounding. They've eliminated all of the scratches and mud, rendering Bresson's fastidious mix crisper than it's probably been in 50+ years.

A MAN ESCAPED is that rare film that works as an intense entertainment AND a thought piece that goes as deep as you want to delve. I'd even go so far as to say it should place higher than its current #5 position on my Skuriels list. I hope to revisit it again soon and explore the three hours of extra material included on the disc.

1MAJOR CAVEAT TO THIS STATEMENT: I've seen eight of Bresson's twelve thirteen features. So I'm admittedly a fraud when I say this. HOWEVER, I'd like to take this time to announce my intention to watch -- and subsequently  post about -- Bresson's entire filmography this year. Ideally, I'll start rolling out a post a week about his films, beginning sometime in May. Other than his lost first film -- 1934's PUBLIC AFFAIRS -- the only snag in the plan right now is finding a watchable copy of FOUR NIGHTS OF A DREAMER. If anyone reading this wants to weigh in on where this can be found, please let me know. I've managed to score copies of all the others.

2 See comment section below -- I inferred an "immediate" where there might not have been one.


  1. "He was also recaptured immediately after escape."

    This is not supported by the record (NYT 1999 obit). He got away to Switzerland. According to wikipedia, he was later captured in Spain but escaped again. At any rate, he took part in the liberation of France in 1944. He could not have written his memoirs if he'd fallen into Nazi hands again--they would have executed him on the spot.

  2. I got my information from the Tony Pipolo essay that accompanies the disc: "In reality, Devigny and his cell mate were recaptured, and the former, suspecting betrayal, abandoned his comrade."

    Granted, this is only one source and technically hearsay since he doesn't cite his source (though I'm assuming, via context, that his source is Devigny's own memoir).

  3. But, to your point, I've omitted "immediately."