Monday, July 27, 2015

A Man Escaped (1956)

Director: Robert Bresson
Writer: Robert Bresson
DP: Léonce-Henri Burel
Editor: Raymond Lamy
Score: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Producer: Alain Poiré, Jean Thuillier
Starring: Franҫois Leterrier, Roland Monod, Jacques Ertod, Maurice Beerblock, Charles Le Clainche
Distribution: Gaumont Film Company
Length: 1 hr. 40 min.

We rarely see the Nazi oppressors in A Man Escaped. The film focuses only on Fontaine (the titular "Man"), and his fellow inmates. Even then, we're often confined with Fontaine, alone in his tiny cell. The biggest source of intrigue in the film becomes his work toward escaping: the film puts close to his planning, patience, and resourcefulness. They're all he has in his life as a prisoner, and the film treats them with due reverence as such.

Though the Nazis remain largely invisible, a few of their actions come to the forefront: they forbid the prisoners from talking to each other, they forbid the prisoners from writing letters to the outside under penalty of death, and they forbid them to receive communication from the outside. They don't want to allow their prisoners contact with other human beings. The main character narrates the whole film, one effect of which is to lock us into his perspective, highlighting the sensation of isolation he feels under Nazi imprisonment. We learn that other prisoners were turned in by their own family members or wrongly implicated by complete strangers. If it seems like the Nazis are fairly inactive in this film, it's because it focuses on how they change the behavior of others. Their ultimate goal is to dehumanize, to obliterate trust and communication and thus render their victims incapable of taking action.

The film shows us how this process works. In the cell next to Fontaine's is an elderly, dejected man named Blanchet. At first, Blanchet refuses to talk to him. His silence is deeply disturbing to Fontaine, who starts forming suspicions about the old man. Then, when Blanchet finally does talk to him, he reveals the reason he didn't want to speak to Fontaine: Pessimism about the resistance movement, distrust of others, and fear of being punished as a co-conspirator in Fontaine's escape. The conditions that the Nazis imposed on France, the conditions that led to Blanchet being unjustly incarcerated, left him with a defeatist and paranoid attitude about talking to people, even when they should be on his side.  

We question how all of this is affecting Fontaine; his narration is deadpan and 
Franҫois Leterrier plays the role without revealing much. His performance is largely blank. He rarely does more than imitate whatever the narration says. Bresson was known for making his actors deliver their performances in a way that represented the role in the most disaffected way possible, asking them to "report" their roles rather than acting them out. In A Man Escaped, this is compounded by the poetry with which Bresson presents Fontaine's work: we start to wonder if Fontaine's determination to escape is fueled by his principles, or simply by his need to have work - to have some kind of mental stimulation when locked into the prison lifestyle. Bresson's films may be too tactile, too physical to imply the presence of spirituality, but they certainly make us long for it.

This question comes to a head late in the film when he gains a new cellmate, a 16-year-old boy named Jost. Jost was arrested for desertion, which makes Fontaine suspicious; is Jost really a fellow prisoner, or is he a Nazi agent sent to flush out prisoners who violated the rules? He cannot know what Jost is thinking without giving himself away. He has a choice: he must either include Jost in his escape plan, or kill him to avoid detection. Our understanding of this state of affairs is heightened since Fontaine is the only character whose thoughts we can hear. It underlines our inability to know Jost's thoughts. What's more, it's slightly troubling to hear only one character narrating in the past tense 
when there's a question of whether he escaped with a companion or if he killed an innocent boy to escape on his own.

But in an interesting turn, Fontaine does not test Jost; rather, he tests himself. He starts gradually revealing his own secrets to Jost, beginning with an explanation of his own ideology. He challenges himself to reveal more and more to Jost, testing exactly how much he's willing to put himself into jeopardy.  By gauging his own reaction to this, he can decide if he wants his escape to be an ideological act or a selfish act.  If he does not kill Jost, his plans may be foiled but he will still have stood by his beliefs in the face of Nazi abuse. If he does kill Jost he will certainly escape, but to a degree it will demonstrate that the Nazis have succeeded in dehumanizing him.

Almost every shot is walled-in, adding a sense of physical isolation over the mental isolation simulated by the narration. When there are no literal walls, shadows close in and take their place. Any time the prisoners speak to each other, there's some structure of the prison that separates them, be it a washroom sink or a cell wall. At the same time, there are also many notable moments in which the composition makes the prisoners appear to reflect one another. These images are as ambiguous as Fontaine himself: at first they blur the lines between the prisoners' identities, evoking the dehumanization inflicted by the Nazis; but once the prisoners start to find their spirituality, however limited, it starts to become an indication that they're all in the same boat, united on the same side. All the while, Bresson remains close to Fontaine's work, sometimes with subtle, stylized accents.

Fontaine's coordination with the other prisoners gives him a fighting chance. Even Blanchet comes around and offers his support, eventually. And when Fontaine needs to avoid making any noise that would attract the guards' attention, he waits for the train to go buy before he acts, relying on the infrastructure of the community he hopes to save. In the film's few, touching moments of freedom, something breaks in from the outside: a reminder of what's absent from the screen, but present in Fontaine's will to continue working. The ending is not suspenseful so much as revelatory, showing two people share in an act of work. 

Bresson probably understood that experience of dehumanization and reliance on invisible forces as well as anyone; he was also a member of the French Resistance, and was also incarcerated for it. Here he demonstrates the persistence of human ideals even through serious mental struggle. 


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