Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped (1956)
France, 1956 Dir: Robert Bresson
Starring Francois Letterier, Charles La Clainche, Maurice Beerblock, Roland Monod.
Based on the real-life memoirs of World War II Resistance fighter Andre Devigny, A Man Escaped is the most rewarding escape-from-prison drama ever made. Far more affecting than the sentimental The Shawshank Redemption (1994), although both films are similarly affirmative of the indomitable human spirit, Bresson’s masterpiece makes the viewer live and breath every desperate moment of POW Lt. Fontaine’s ordeal, from his initial capture to his final joyous getaway (I don’t feel this gives away any details of the ending, given the film’s explanatory title!)
Robert Bresson’s austere and contemplative approach to film-making, famously compared to Yasujiro Ozu and Carl Theodor Dreyer by writer/director Paul Schrader in his book Transcendental Style In Film, is given it’s fullest expression here. The bleak, claustrophobic nature of events, combined with the dull routine of day to day prison life, allows Bresson to extract the maximum amount of compassion for our protagonist through the film’s stark detail. Every creak, crunch, squeak and crack of Fontaine’s attempts to carve through his cell door are magnified to heart-stopping effect against the deathly silence of the prison. In fact, the whole film is a masterclass in less-is-more sound technique. Apart from Fontaine’s narration, the soundtrack mostly consists of a restrained stillness, punctuated by noises of digging, scratching, cutting, footsteps etc. This technique is particularly effective during the film’s tense final half hour.
The only instance of music is the occasional yet powerful use of Mozart’s Great Mass In C Minor, played each time the prisoners collectively emerge outside to clean out their slops and then finally as Fontaine manages to make it over the wall and to freedom. Perhaps Bresson is choosing to use the music as an expression of shared experiences and liberty, as opposed to the silence of loneliness and confinement. Whatever the reasons, this selective use of music, rather than a blanket effect throughout, is just one aspect of A Man Escaped which raises it above the standards of most prisoner of war dramas – indeed, most dramas full stop.
A richly profound and spiritual cinematic experience, A Man Escaped is clearly informed by the director’s deep religious convictions (he was a lifelong Jansenist Catholic) which inspired themes of redemption and salvation in his work, as well as his own experiences as a prisoner of war. Bresson’s influential style was an expression of pure cinema, stripping away any theatrical illusions and capturing on camera the raw essence of human existence. A Man Escaped is Bresson’s great poem to the best and worst of humanity.