© 2013 by James Clark
For a filmmaker whom virtually no one knows nowadays, nor cares to know, Robert Bresson elicits remarkable agitation in print. His elegant cinematography does, of course, gain the respect of those for whom such elegance matters; but that cannot account for the worshipful tributes sent his way. As with Heidegger, the welter of theological cues emanating from his work assures an ardent and erudite quorum sensing that work’s importance in general but slipping over the matter of the specifics of the accomplishment. Moreover, though Bresson produced very few films, those that did surface unfailingly brought into play protagonists fascinating (albeit sometimes creepily) in the dire straits to which they were exposed. With the exception of Balthazar and Mouchette (representing a period of reflection upon innocents in a world of vicious corruption), the figures to the fore exhibit self-imposed enslavement to, if not unviable, alarmingly unbalanced courses of action. Hosannas, therefore, directed toward the eponymous hero of A Man Escaped (1956)—accounting for a goodly percentage of the raptures brought forth to burnish an obscure career—have to be unplugged in any appreciation of that truly magnificent (but far from simplistic) film, very much, as it happens, in the vein of fathoming protagonistic imbalance.
It is useful, I think, to have come to terms with the two films flanking the one in question here, namely, Diary of a Country Priest (1951) and Pickpocket (1959). Those two sad but excitingly edifying tales of painstaking devotion to an arcane craft—whereby wider fields of energy suffer catastrophically—may be, with surprising fecundity, compared to Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. Even moreso, as it happens, the Bresson film about a man successfully escaping the murderous efforts of a savage regime can be extricated from alleged visits from figures like Jesus Christ and Superman by paying heed to Tarantino’s soundness about the self-destructive perils of combative virtuosity and the debilitation inherent in acquiring high proficiency in demanding tasks, as put into especially high gear by do-or-die circumstances.
Given Bresson’s Wartime imprisonment, by the Nazi Occupation of France, for being implicated in Resistance activities, it was only a matter of time before he would deal, in a film, with his discoveries about himself there. Though not nearly as bathed in florid mayhem as Django, Bresson’s account of the twisted era he came through emphasizes factors equally important to Tarantino’s saga. (By the by, a coincidental bit of design has Bresson’s protagonist, Fontaine, going through the months-long eventuation wearing his only shirt, and showing its lines of dried blood from the beating he receives near the outset. They remind one of the linear scars from whippings [by amateurs like the Brittle brothers], on Django’s back.) First of all, the war raging from the cloistral perspective of a largely quiet conglomeration of cells with inmates understandably stressed—this being a prison for subversives the State has little patience with—seems to be prevalently fuelled by local vigilantes far more bloodthirsty about contrarian efforts than the professional German soldiers guarding the prison. One of Fontaine’s fellow-prisoners (and someone he tries to enlist in his efforts to escape), Orsini, by name, had been turned in by his wife, and someone else remarks that such conjugal divergence is common. The people beating up Fontaine for trying to escape while being transported to the prison are all in civilian clothes, and they speak perfect French. Near the end of his tenure, he’s whisked off to a civil court (at “Hotel Terminus”). A clerk intones (in perfect French), “The charges against you are grave. You shall be shot.” During the morning routine of clearing and cleaning out their toilet tub and washing themselves, the inmates are barked at (“No talking!”) by French supporters of a regime promising more predictability than hitherto.
Perhaps something about those odds led Fontaine, after the beating and lying in a stretcher on the floor (carried there by his adamantly hostile countrymen) and hearing on the radio a wild speech by Hitler, to note (in a voice-over that guides us henceforth), “I became used to the idea of dying… I would have preferred immediate execution.” Taken to his cell after regaining some physical stability, he’s frozen with the deadliness of his perspective. “My courage abandoned me for a moment, and I cried.” The narrative would seem to imply that courage was to be fully restored therewith (just as the title would seem to be promoting an unequivocally great triumph). But perhaps this is Bresson at his abstruse best, leaving up to us to begin a scrutiny of the prisoner’s equilibrium going forward. Perhaps this—and not the suspense of making factual headway out of a lethal trap (defused, in fact, by the title)—is the real subject of A Man Escaped.
The scene following this, beginning with Fontaine having slept so deeply that a guard had to rouse him from bed, paints a picture of a furtive little animal torn away from surroundings that had vitally nourished it. There are two men at his bedside to take him somewhere, and, plunging from out of the emergency-free rill of that primal sleep, he plays possum to offset possible harm. “Instinctively, I pretended to be too weak to get up… Did that little trick save my life?” Left in peace, back on his cot, when he awakens he is all about the mundane details of his cell. Running a bit against that disposition, on noting a cement shelf on the window wall, he uses it to gain access to wider prospects. Fontaine’s face remains streaked with blood, and as he looks around the prison courtyard his visage is more wooden than shocked. Although we have in play here Bresson’s preparation of his amateur actors to convey sheer physicality by eschewing any attempt at “acting” within the terms of the scenario, we may still consider closely that, during his attempt to break away from the car bringing him in, there was a hungry, sensuous anticipation (albeit muted, tense) in his eyes and about his motions which has vanished at the point of entry to this place of terror. This diminution is further insinuated by his striking up an exchange with a fellow-prisoner walking freely about in the yard, along with two associates. The figure in question is quite a bit older than he, but it is Fontaine who appears to be a spent force. Whereas the curiously free (almost metaphorically so [to be noted about a film style renowned for unembellished manifestation], as, later, he manages to come up to Fontaine’s locked door in broad daylight, to tell him he’s being taken from the premises, “God knows where…”) “Terry,” as he jauntily introduces himself, assures a panicky Fontaine he can “get a message out” for him, the protagonist mainly agonizes about the Resistance team he has led being swamped. He does mention (exaggeratedly) that that upbeat aspect of engagement with oppression means “everything already changed for me.”
Terry has tossed up to Fontaine’s first floor window a roll of string, eagerly taken by the new arrival to be the first tangible instrument by which to knock over the ponderous jail and its vicious attendants. Also providing a lift, a guard takes him down to the washroom to wipe off the dried blood on his face (a far more playable march than the previously, hysterically, imagined march to a firing squad); and he finds it possible to communicate with the man in the next cell by tapping Morse code on the wall. Making a little sack out of his handkerchief, next day he attaches it to that string, lowers it to Terry and receives pencil, paper and bits of bread and sugar. (Is it apt here to recognize that these little leavings are the solace of rodents?) Terry says he’ll take up his message and begin proceedings for delivery the next day; and Fontaine completes his obligations to his group of subversives, with the notification that the transmitter he had been using has been compromised. It “was helping the Germans because they had cracked the code…” (An early instance of unintentionally being on the same page with crude sensibilities?) He also lets his family know he’s alive, an alert that later on pays off in the form of a care package of linens he uses for producing rope for lifting himself free. Moving apace with his scheme to undermine the powers-that-be, he sends down the note and goes on to ask for a safety-pin, which Terry acquires from the women’s quarters. Included with this gift are another snack, and a scrap of paper, reading, “Courage.” (Did the women know he’d be in special difficulty on this point?) Discovering from his neighbor (a blacksmith) how to undo, with the pin, the handcuffs he has worn since being deposited, bleeding, at the prison entrance, he remarks, in that voice-over channel which functions as a cardiograph, “I felt a sudden sense of victory!” Pumped (“Merci! Merci!”), on the next day, on hearing that Terry’s daughter is going to pay a visit and come away with his message, he shows off his cuffless hands. “Look!” Terry replies (as King Schultz did years later), “Be careful!” And we’re ready to keep our eyes open for how much care, and the nature of the care, there is, going into Fontaine’s counter-attack.
The first scene out of that starting gate gives us Fontaine brought before a Vichy prison administrator who tries a bit of inter-Gallic-razzmatazz—“Let me be frank. I’d have tried to jump [from the car] too”—followed by his real skill, sneering, “Do you accept your defeat? Promise you’ll no longer try to escape.” Of course Fontaine mouths, “I promise,” and of course he passes a vital signs threshold, with a chat to himself and to us—“I decided to escape as soon as possible.” Add to the mix his promptly getting his first meal, ubiquitous thin soup, and we’re in the thick of giving this nebulous scenario a Michelin rating. You get the idea, from clues like his attentiveness to the delivery man at the peep hole on placing his bowl just inside the door—“Did he expect to see me jumping at my grub?”—that Lieutenant Fontaine has been quite a bit about integrity as impressing others. (That clue seems to come into its own at the getaway climax, couched in such a way as to resemble a high-wire act in a circus.) However, to give you some idea of the nuancing (the soup he’s entered upon), on hearing gunfire (signalling an execution), the self-centered risk-taker immediately taps the wall to assure himself that his neighbor was not the victim and goes on, from that pleasant discovery, to spend the rest of the day “tapping the Battalion Song which he had asked to learn…That was all the help I could give him…”
Removed to an upstairs cell, he confesses to be troubled by “living in terrifying solitude.” No doubt that plight would be troubling; but “terrifying” is not the only response open to its solitude. The reservoir of eventuation, over and above panic about losing an entourage, fascinatingly (in its dividedness) catches up with Fontaine in an experience he can only ascribe to “luck and idleness.” Staring at the cell’s wooden door, he assimilates its texturing (richly rendered by the superb black and white camera-work), and the realization, from that sensuous recovery point, lunges forward as to the fragility of the woodwork (“beechwood or poplar”) auxiliary to the oak beams designed to make breakage impossible. From there, a goodly percentage of the film’s running time is expended upon accompanying Fontaine, anxious to work so slowly that no loud sounds are emitted, in his intent to tear apart the confining door. First, one soup spoon has to be kept behind, its handle quietly, breathlessly, sharpened on the stone floor to act as a knife or chisel; then a steel model has to be anxiously awaited. And then the weak interstices have to be gently but still effectively exploited by an endeavor of intensive predation (extending to every facet of the protagonist’s surroundings), of a ravenous, and self-consuming, drive to advantage and its necessary powers. Especially noteworthy about this anti-carpentry is the miniscule range of focus, its absorption with smallness, as mooting what’s going on with the aspects of bigness, expansiveness. Little shavings of wood, having made their way outside of the door, to the public corridor, have to be swept (by a larger shaving) to avoid notice from the officials. Shards being dislodged have to be painstakingly replaced, their blonde edges pencilled over, at the end of the long work day, so as to be able to pass any sudden incursion and inspection by the guards. Terry’s departure and the lack of responsiveness of his new neighbor leave him “in despair…I kept working [at the door]. It stopped me from thinking.” Now one might be inclined to say, “Give the guy a break! He’s struggling for his life!” But over and above such desperate plunges, there are ranges of consciousness (“thinking”) that have to be given their due, no matter what. And no one was more adamant about and sensitive to this exigency than Bresson. (The presence of a baseline of sensual discernment leading to analysis of the door is, I think, recognition of the primacy of that range of doing justice.)
Affording a toehold toward antithetical expansiveness in the midst of cramped manipulation, there is Fontaine’s mission to get some action out of his only adjacent neighbor. “My neighbor’s silence troubled me.” One of his problems with such standoffishness in face of his miniature demolition was the possibility of being turned in by someone hoping to get on good terms with the jailers. (This matter was a source of some anxiety at the outset of his dealings with Terry.) “He scared me so much I plugged up the openings” [so hard-won]. His camouflage routine is instructive in being so mean. Wetting scraps of paper and darkening them by rubbing them on the floor, Fontaine comes into the sightlines of a bird or little beast insulating its nest, not the picture one would expect from an audacious player on the world stage. On the other hand, he is a fighter and, while shaking in his boots about what the guy next door could do to him, he tries to get in his face by coming to his own window, which is only inches from that of the silent type. (Coinciding with the heyday of French Theatre of the Absurd, particularly that of Samuel Beckett, the visual design of this film thrills to a wide sphere of pertinence.) “No guards are around… We can talk… Are you afraid?”/ (Silence) Each morning, to the beat of shrill whistle blasts, the prisoners are marched down to a trough to clean up, and, on the way, to dump their toilet pails and clean them up. On the morning after the neighbor’s silence, Fontaine trudges behind him (an elderly man in a suit and fedora), sees him take a tumble, a bit of a fainting spell, and he helps him to his feet. Later that day, Fontaine is able to get some conversation out of him, to the effect that he was the recipient of a desperately hurried delivery of cash from a Jewish lady; he was discovered with it and hurried off to this jail. Thus ensues an initial debate, set off by our protagonist’s attempt at being upbeat. “They’ll let you go.”/ “No.”/ “What can I do for you?”/ “Nothing.”/ “There must be something.”/ “If you want to help me, stop that scratching. You’ll get the whole floor punished.” That would seem to be a firm, “No” to the overture of wide open spaces, of justice in the sense of rightness. But, by next day, he’s clearly snagged the old man’s curiosity—“Why do you do it?”/ “To fight… [the closures precipitated by fascist adamancy on behalf of simplistic sufficing] … and M. Blanchet [a name implying faint-heartedness], you should fight, too. And hope…”/ “Hope for what?”/ “To go home [to feel at home]. To be free…”/ “Free?”/ “Someone’s waiting for you…”/ “No one.”/ “A friend?”/ “I have no friends.”/ “Fight anyway…[Your acquaintances do not exhaust the resources of the world.] Fight for everyone here.” (This extensive exchange had to be recorded, because, in its (lightly tempered) thud to preoccupation with the personal, it affords a rich deposit of the slippage, from fighting essential decline (newly intuited), to fighting old conflicts that fall far short of essential justice, rightness in its sensual presence.) Now assured that his neighbor is not a fink, Fontaine can strip away the paper camouflage, open his door and do nocturnal reconnoitres of the confines. This progress now visibly captures the imagination of the old isolate. “You’ll leave,” he declares. “How will you do it?” And his audacious neighbor musters the sense of play amidst this nerve-wracking work. “I have absolutely no idea.” Though next day he asserts, “You won’t make it,” he also demands, “Be careful.” On being caught up in another prisoner’s desperate bolt for the walls, the protagonist-morale booster informs Blanchet of that abortive attempt and hears from his neighbor-become-(inspired) friend, “Orsini had to fail so you could succeed” [by realizing that, in addition to rope, he’ll need hooks]. His interlocutor also quickly grasps the specific requirements of scaling such walls as theirs. “You’ll need three hooks in all.” Fontaine is moved by the cynic’s transformation. “What’s extraordinary is that you just said [what you did].” As their doors open for the morning detail, Blanchet tosses him his blanket to provide the extra rope. The days go by, and Fontaine’s fan presses for a win; and, as he does this, he catches us up with the perception of Fontaine’s having somewhat lost his game face. “You’re stalling… You’re thinking too much!”
Running parallel to this motion displaying efficacy, there is the clean-up routine and its cast of characters—over and above impetuous (emotion-keen) Orsini, who would not ally himself with Fontaine’s project clearly requiring two men (“Too long. Too complicated.”/ “It’s the only way!”)—who can’t begin to strive at his level, but who are ready to offer encouragement. These episodes are couched in passages from Mozart’s stirring Mass in C minor, its stately, melancholy mood coinciding with the sense of life as a vale of tears to be borne with patience and hopes for another, more satisfying, mode of life. The first person he meets there tells him, “You’ll get used to it.” A new prisoner, a pastor, trots out a bit of entitlement rhetoric—“They arrested me at my pulpit!”—and makes clear at the outset he’d always dreamed of being alone one day with his Bible. (Fontaine, in the first flush of seeing daylight, retorts, “I don’t have a Bible. Just a pencil.”) The clergyman insists, “You have to keep busy. Try staying sane…” And while the resister tries to seem to be going along with this palliative ward strategy (“I do…”), it and the rest of the end-of-the-line invalids drag Fontaine into a register of inactivity doing him no good at all. The communion implicit in the musical atmosphere is one of sharing distress, not sharing gusto. From out of Orsini’s being pierced by his wife’s betrayal, the priest assures him, “I said you were courage incarnate…” But does Fontaine not need to shore up a currency of courage commensurate to the audacity and vigor of his vigil at the planks on the door? Right after this his voice-over states, “After a month’s work my door was open.” Fontaine is walking a very thin line with sharks all around, and the thread of his intensities discloses that he needs a devil-may-care brush with ecstasies, not a sermon on being good. In another hurried and harried conversation, the priest orders, “Read and pray. God will save you.” Fontaine tweaks that in terms of, “Only if we give him a hand… It would be too easy if God handled everything…” Another morning, perhaps in discomfort about the would-be escapist’s appetite for turning things around, the pastor challenges him with the idea that he has “too much hope for a new life…” The voice from the past offers this possibility to derail what appears to be overweening pride. “Maybe that was what Christ meant, in saying, “You must be born again.” He surreptitiously passes to Fontaine a text of Scripture—“Jesus said, ‘Marvel not that I said, ye must be born again. The wind blows where it wants…” (There is a more and a less active take on this, the more being about an exigency embracing finite resolve to rise above the cut and dried connotations of “Marvel not.” What Fontaine is about in pressing for the non-fascist innovation (which troubles the Gothic atavist), is very much a case of marvel. And like the Country Priest and Joan of Arc, Fontaine’s foray into the world of marvel (a surrealist world)—of helping the wind blow at full strength—is fraught with shortcomings. The very subtle nature of these shortcomings constitutes the illuminative heart of A Man Escaped. (It also, as it happens, forms the far from easily digested heart of Michael Haneke’s Amour, Haneke being very explicit about his indebtedness to [love for] Bresson.)
The skittish trough-mates hem and haw about Fontaine’s diverting folly, and he comes to a point of admitting to Blanchet, at the windows of their coffins, “It’s hard to take the plunge.” Putting a bit of flame to his behind is the formal sentence of death and a cell mate, Jost, about fifteen years old, and dressed in features of both French and German military uniforms (that is to say, another serving of soup). He had run away from home for some excitement, and he was soon in hot water—first colluding with those cool Nazis and then killing one, in a stupid flare-up. Fontaine had gone through a few hours of near hysteria—first, on fearing that, after sentencing (at a municipal one-man-tribunal), he would not be returned to the cell and its carefully rigged door and the roping and hooks prepared from iron fixtures and bedding springs; then on fearing that Jost was a spy. But after dismissing an impulse to murder the kid, he enlists him in the getaway plot. “I’ll help you make the most of your freedom,” is this Beauty’s overture to a flea-ridden but surprisingly supple and organic Beast. (The whispering they have to maintain while doing their thing recalls the wispy register of Cocteau’s Belle et Bête.) As the two of them clamber to the roof through a skylight Fontaine had broken on one of his nocturnal reconnoitres, we see them as a pair of agile clowns (of the high-wire variety, with its premium upon cooperatively securing footholds)—Fontaine fretful (and having to kill a soldier on guard at a point they need to traverse), looking down at a soldier-cyclist squeakily circling the compound like a clever bear, and having to wake up his periodically snoozing pal, more rooted in the relaxing dimension of intent. (True to the reverb of this adventurous show, we begin to see Jost as a sensually sound Belle and Fontaine, with his magic bag of tricks, as Bête.) Over the last wall and back in the world at large, Fontaine gives the kid the briefest and most tepid of hugs. Somehow the occasion is not being observed in its true grandeur. Jost exclaims, “If my mother could see me now!”—a bit juvenile, but at least hearkening to the “more” (than standard real), the surreal mystery over which the war, when all is said and done, was fought.
The two clowns scamper offstage, into a heavy fog. It’s a perfect accompaniment to the far more troubling challenge that lies ahead, for a figure who, in Haneke’s vernacular, stands exposed as needing to “get [his] mojo back.” “I’ll help you make the most of your freedom” would seem to be a promise he can’t fulfill.