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A Man Escaped (1956)

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Earlier this year, I saw "Au Hasard Balthazar," and I needed no convincing of its greatness. I was overwhelmed.

This weekend, I saw "A Man Escaped." And while I can see that everything in it is well executed, I was not particularly moved by it. It did build a lot of suspense and hope. And the differing personalities and perspectives were interesting. But I get the feeling there's a lot I'm missing here, and I'd love to hear those on the board who love it so much expound upon its greatness.

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Is this the first time that you have watched it? I am willing to bet that a lot of the reasons fans of Au Hasard will give for the reason they love that film are the same ones they would give for A Man Escaped.

It has the same pacing, the same thoughtful juxtapositions of close-ups with wider shots and the careful editing of event with reaction. A Man Escaped though is much simpler than Au Hasard, its script is almost claustrophobic at points for me and adds to the overall mood of the film in this way. All of its characters seem stuck in predictable channels and stripped of all of the narrative drama we are used to. We know from the title what is going to happen, we know from the looks of determination or resignation on these characters faces what is going to happen. All actions and dialogue seem like afterthoughts in this sense, it is like reading a book we have already read.

But at the same time there is a masterful suspense in the experience of the film that Bresson seems to conjure up through the choices he makes with his camera. As if in this film the rote power of images are its very intention. And there is an unparalleled spirituality to these images of a man very carefully, very thoughtfully and finally breaking free from the prison of these little images of action and the numerous little details of this prison into the final wider shots of its conclusion.

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I loved A Man Escaped. (My review is coming within a week or two.)

My favorite Bresson of the three I've seen is Diary of a Country Priest (the third, which I also appreciated, is Lancelot du Lac). However, I suspect that A Man Escaped may in a sense be the quintessential Bresson film, in that it offers the ideal subject for his unique stylistic preferences.

For example, take the way Bresson juxtaposes onscreen images with sounds from offscreen. Could that approach possibly work better than in a prison film, where Fontaine's range of vision is limited by the walls of his cell (or the narrow opening between the panels of his door) -- AND where he has ample reason to pay keen attention to every boot scrape? What IS that unnerving squeaking sound? He MUST know -- it could be life or death.

The same is true of Bresson's insistence on bare performance stripped of emotion and affect -- an approach that seems to me singularly suited to portraying a prisoner of war who has been reduced to a single purpose, a single goal, and has put aside everything but the action necessary to get him there. In my limited experience of the director thus far, I doubt if any other Bressonian protagonist, including the title character of Pickpocket (as yet unseen by me), could have as compelling a need to put aside emotion and focus on pure action.

I also find A Man Escaped profoundly evocative of spiritual liberation. It's been pointed out that Bresson's subtitle, The Wind Blows Where it Wills, alludes to John 3 (the "born of water and the Spirit" discourse), and it seems to me that Bresson's choice to change the prisoner's name to Fontaine, "fountain," is another baptism reference. And there's also clearly a spiritual dimension to the drama itself, with characters imprisoned by despair or required to make a leap of faith in pursuit of freedom. I'll write more later if I have time.

We know from the title what is going to happen

But is that really true?

spoilers1.gif (in my opinion)

I've only seen the film once so far, and like all of Bresson's film's so far I feel I must see it again, but I found that I had no basis for confidence, right up to the very last shot, that the title "escape" meant that Fontaine would actually get away alive.

Especially in view of all the spiritual and existential themes the film is working, it seemed perfectly viable to me that Fontaine's "escape" would turn out to be some kind of inner liberation, or that death itself might be the escape. It could also have turned out to mean that he got past the prison walls, in which case the title would still be true if he took a bullet in the back in the very last shot.

That his escape turns out to be literal and complete puts me in mind of another French meditation on bondage and inner liberation by a man who (I learn from Doug Cummings) was a friend of Bresson's: "The Myth of Sisyphus" by Albert Camus.

With its final shot, A Man Escaped seems to me a sublime refutation of Camus's contention that "the struggle itself" is enough to "fill a man's heart," whether one's quest is futile or not. Fontaine must REALLY escape, not simply make the attempt. Yet I for one held my breath throughout the last shot, and shared Fontaine's moment of liberation.

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Is this the first time that you have watched it?

Yes.

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I think with Bresson films it's often some time later when you feel the real effect. Ozu is a bit like this too Tarkovsky as well. I agree with the person who said Diary of a country priest is their favourite but I'd have A Man Escaped in second place. I think it has one of the most powerful endings of any movie and the use of the music is extraordinary considering that in the rest of the film there's so much silence or emphasis on a single sound. And when he drops to the street, it's more thrilling than any action movie escape could be. Like I said, I find myself thinking more about it as time goes by. I think it's definitely supposed to have an allegorical component as well. You've made me think I should dig out the tape and watch it again.

Ned.

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We know from the title what is going to happen

But is that really true?

I think it is true. It seems essential that he strips us of our desire to wonder and imagine "what could be" in the film so that we can focus on "what is."

With its final shot, A Man Escaped seems to me a sublime refutation of Camus's contention that "the struggle itself" is enough to "fill a man's heart," whether one's quest is futile or not. Fontaine must REALLY escape, not simply make the attempt.

Brilliant point. Perfect. And that really seems to explain why it is that we know from the get go what is going on. For Camus, especially as we see in The Stranger (which is another prison drama) not knowing the future is the source of our alienation from the present. In The Stranger, the main character uses this alienation from the present as a way to existentially escape what is coming next. He is a victim of the "now," and he answers to nobody. This is some sort of comfort to him.

For Bresson, his film shows us the "now" in all of its glory, its detail, and its beauty. So we have this existential encounter with the "now" that Camus is so keen to get us to experience in his literature. But Bresson is such a brilliant artist that he gets us into that detailed experience of the present even when we do know what is coming. Does that make sense?

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And when he drops to the street, it's more thrilling than any action movie escape could be.

Welcome, Ned. Great point. I love that brief one-armed hug Fontaine gives Jost, who says, "If my mother could see me now," before they walk briskly into the night. Such a beautifully understated, victorious, liberating moment.

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Its becoming increasingly clear to me that I need to see this in a theater, not on my TV screen with a library VHS copy. Everything you say, I'm nodding and saying, "Yes," but the experience just didn't happen the way it should while I was watching it. Hopefully I'll find better conditions next time. I'd heard it mentioned so often here that I just lost all patience and grabbed the old New Yorker Films VHS off the library shelf. Perhaps that was a bad move.

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My DVD review copy just arrived today, along with THE SON! Oh happy day!! And what with the arrival a couple weeks ago (?) of the DIARY OF A COUNTRY PRIEST DVD Doug Cummings loaned me, I think I've got myself quite the cinematic feast ahead, this coming week.

And how's this -- I've never seen a Bresson film before! Go ahead, envy me, all you Bressophiles... I'm also very keen to see THE PICKPOCKET and the donkey movie this summer - those are the other of his films that've long held an appeal. Also planning to add SOLARIS and STALKER to my Tarkovsky "Seen That" list, by the end of the summer, and maybe revisit ROUBLEV. Sheesh, by September, I'll be quite the cinephile...

Okay, now you can go back to actually talking about the movie.

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Sounds like a great viewing schedule. Looking forward to hearing you talk/write about Bresson after having watched The Son.

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Sounds like a great viewing schedule. Looking forward to hearing you talk/write about Bresson after having watched The Son.

You figure there's a connection? Cool. That encourages me still further about Bresson, since THE SON had such an overwhelmingly powerful effect on me.

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You figure there's a connection? Cool. That encourages me still further about Bresson, since THE SON had such an overwhelmingly powerful effect on me.

Oh, yeah. The Son is way Bressonian.

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I haven't seen The Son yet but Rosetta is incredibly influenced by Bresson and magnificent because of it. I'm halfway through Diary of a Country Priest, the novel by George Bernanos, and it's superb. It's also very much like the movie which surprises me because Bresson seems like such an individual voice. But there's definitely a similar outlook uniting Bernanos and Bresson. Digression: Has anyone seen the Tavernier film It All Happens Today (sorry if the translation is inexact) that's set in the same bleak bit of France as Diary and come to think of it would be a very worthy addition to the 100 movies list.

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The Dardennes have often been compared to Bresson in their inner themes, the way they emphasize the everyday, physical world, their subdued performances (though not nearly so subdued), their propensity to emphasize the mysterious motivations of their characters (in their case, shooting many shots from behind, over the shoulder), etc. Rosetta has very strong connections to Mouchette. I've never heard the Dardennes mention Bresson, but indeed, there are many parallels.

I haven't seen It All Happens Today, but my girlfriend read Diary of a Country Priest two times back-to-back and has been urging me to do so. Pialat made another acclaimed Bernanos adaptation, Under the Sun of Satan.

Edited by Doug C

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Here are some very illuminating comments from Allen Thiher's essay, "Bresson's Un condamn

Edited by Doug C

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Also, I thought I had posted this somewhere before (probably in the Balthazar thread), but here is my recent review of A Man Escaped.

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For Bresson, his film shows us the "now" in all of its glory, its detail, and its beauty. So we have this existential encounter with the "now" that Camus is so keen to get us to experience in his literature. But Bresson is such a brilliant artist that he gets us into that detailed experience of the present even when we do know what is coming. Does that make sense?

Very much so. A lot has been made about the title, which is blatantly deterministic (and thus tied to Jansenism), but also the fact that the narration is in the past tense. All this has already occured and Fontaine is recounting it. And if that's too subtle, Bresson even has Fontaine describe the fact that he "didn't know at the time" how Terry and his daughter smuggled out his letters, but later learned of their sacrifice. "And what a sacrifice," he notes.

At the same time, it's an incredibly suspenseful film and I wasn't so sure what would happen, or how it would happen. Heck, even having seen the film many times, I still find myself getting caught up in the suspense of the moment. Funny how that works.

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Digression: Has anyone seen the Tavernier film It All Happens Today (sorry if the translation is inexact) that's set in the same bleak bit of France as Diary and come to think of it would be a very worthy addition to the 100 movies list.
After falling in love with Safe Conduct, I hastened to track down any Tavernier I could find -- and discovered what I'd fallen for was probably the exception to a rule. Safe Conduct seemed warm and full of life compared to a style that in most of the other films seemed a colder, grittier brand of realism. Not a bad style, but different than I'd expected. I did like Sunday in the Country, once I got the hang of Tavernier's angle of view. But I found It All Happens Today a bit didactic, Marxist realism slipping into preachiness.

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Only now does the conspiracy of occasions finally stop working against me, and at last I dig in on Bresson and the Dardenne dudes. Today, A MAN ESCAPED. I can't believe that such a single-minded story line, with such a severely restricted visual palette to paint from - apart from the glorious music, we see and hear pretty much nothing apart from what Fontaine himself perceives - can be so crowded with meaning, can evoke so much, can be so suspenseful!

Having watched the film and written my initial CT Movies review without reading about the flick (you know my fanatical devotion to seeing things fresh), now I've begun reading through what you've all posted here, and eventually get round to the links you've provided. Such rich stuff! Truly, this board is a treasure trove.

While Leary and Doug bring a lot of philosophical and historical context to this that I don't have, and I'll look forward to learn more about Jansenism and Camus and how they might inform a reading of this film, I must say I'm with SDG on the question of how much the title (and voice over) tells us about Fontaine's eventual fate. For me, the apparent certainty and optimism of the main title seems undercut by the reminder of divine sovereignty (and unpredictability) in the subtitle: "The wind/Spirit bloweth as it listeth" always puts my certainties in their place, and I totally wasn't willing to give all my credence to the reassurance the past-tense narration seemed to offer: just like SDG, I figured there could be a million scenarios that could satisfy titles and voice-over perfectly well, and things still end up "badly" for our hero. I'd suggest that there's a pretty complex tension between hope and despair in the film, between promise and doubt, that's accomplished by the means already mentioned plus myriad uses of image, story, dialogue, etc. Sure the "now" is extraordinarily important: I wouldn't say the uncertainty of future outcome undermines that in any way. But then, i haven't read the related philosophical stuff, so what can I say? That's how I took the film, "existentially", if you will. dry.gif

Alan, I really like a number of the points you bring up in your post. Would you mind if I borrow those insights in the "Talk About It" section of my CT review? I don't think there's a way to credit you there, but if I come up with one I will. Mind?

Ron

Edited by Ron

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I would be honored. Maybe you can simply mention artsandfaith.com ?

In the "Talk About It" section, when I do provide links or references to external sources, they're usually edited out, so I doubt that will happen. But thanks for permission to draw on your observations, credited or not!

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I recently purchased this film on DVD. I had previously seen Bresson's Au Hasard Balthazar and Diary of a Country Priest.

Immediately after my first viewing of A Man Escaped, I shared Jeffrey's experience of feeling somewhat underwhelmed. The greatness of it didn't hit me right away. I needed time to asborb it. I don't mean by this that I needed a second viewing, although I did need that too. I mean that I needed time for the first viewing to fully sink in, which took several days. Great art is challenging art and, for me at least, the act of responding to it has to be at least minimally commensurate with the act of creating it, in terms of time passage. A second viewing of A Man Escaped confirmed for me that I had, in fact, seen a masterpiece the first time, without yet realizing it.

There are some excellent comments in this thread, but I particularly want to commend Alan Thomas for his outstanding post of 24 September 2004, which was written immediately after his first viewing (!). Alan wrote:

I see its primary thrust as being overwhelmingly humanist (in the best sense of the word).

[and]

It is freedom for freedom's sake, reminiscent of the OT writings of breaking bonds of oppression and standing upright. It is a freedom that reflects humanity's place in Creation.

[and, about Fontaine]

Over and over again he CHOOSES TO TRUST--the prisoners in the courtyard, his neighbors, other prisoners, Jost, etc.

I agree with all of this. Very well said, Alan!

Alan's last observation prompts the following lengthy, but I hope illuminating, digression...

Given Fontaine's choice to trust, one may ask, Whence comes this trust? Various answers to this question are possible. An existentialist answer is that the trust comes from Fontaine himself--he creates it, and he imposes it on his otherwise meaningless physical surroundings. Or, to adopt a more subtle formulation of the same type of thinking, one might say that it comes partly from Fontaine himself and partly from the norms that his socially-constructed surroundings have imbued him with. We may reasonably assume, in Fontaine's case, that these surroundings may have included some form of religious (probably Catholic) instruction. A biologist might prefer to craft her answer in more Darwinian terms, i.e. a general disposition to trust evolved in mankind, she may say, because those who trusted survived, and reproduced, in greater numbers than those who didn't trust--while, at the same time, she will be careful not to grant any sort of ontological status to trust, vis-à-vis life itself. In the biologist's mind, mistrust could have evolved just as easily as trust, if the conditions had favored it. A Christian theologian, understandably, will not be happy with such a nonnormative answer, but he may be just as likely to cast his answer in equally provincial (read ecclesial) terms. The source of trust is not the church, however, and that is not the proper place to look for it. Perhaps most theologians instinctively understand this, and so they aren't all that interested in a question like this. But one theologian (who was also a philosopher) who was interested, and who wrote extensively on this subject, was Knud E. Løgstrup (1905-1981).

Per Løgstrup, trust, openness of speech, and mercy are all examples of life-manifestations (the Danish word livsytringer can also be translated as "expressions of life"). It is beyond the scope of this post to fully explicate Løgstrup's concept of life-manifestations, but the following is an informal, yet illustrative, example given by a translator of Løgstrup, Russell Dees (Metaphysics, Vol. I, p. x), followed by my somewhat more formal summary of the characteristics of life-manifestations (based on Metaphysics, Vol. II, pp. 375-391):

To the extent a lie detector is an effective apparatus, it is because we can presume that human beings have an automatic tendency to tell the truth. In order to lie, they must overcome something, which has a psychological effect that, in turn, will be registered by the machine. Similarly, Løgstrup explains that human beings operate on the fundamental assumption of openness of speech. We automatically presume that, when we speak to another person, the other person speaks truthfully with us--unless he or she has some particular motivation to deceive us. This does not mean that people do not lie to one another--only that to do so requires overcoming something that is a natural tendency. That something, Løgstrup says, is the life-manifestation.

Characteristics of life-manifestations:

1) Life-manifestations are usually latent. Much as language is usually overlooked in favor of its subject matter, life-manifestations tend to be overlooked in favor of the actions they facilitate in the situations in which they arise. Most of the time we naturally, and rightly, focus more on what we are doing, or intending to do, than on the life-manifestations themselves.

2) Life-manifestations become visible during conflict or crisis. The normal latency of life-manifestations may be overridden when situations arise for which there is a price to be paid for acting in conformity to life-manifestations. It is when we can no longer rely on the more or less unhindered facilitations of life-manifestations, that we tend to notice life-manifestations, i.e. we notice them more in their absence than in their presence.

3) Life-manifestations are unconditioned. If life-manifestations are made to serve goals other than their own, they disappear or even turn into their opposites. For example, mercy seeks to free human beings from their suffering. As soon as mercy serves any other goal, e.g. societal stability, it is not mercy any longer.

4) Once visible, life-manifestations may be formulated in ethical norms. Norms are derived from life-manifestations, not the other way around. The ought of the norm is based on the unconditionality of the life-manifestation.

5) The unconditionality of the life-manifestations does not negate the conditionality of the actions. Neither the norm's ought, nor the life-manifestation's unconditionality, eliminates the need for deliberation and judgment; they do not dictate actions.

6) In exceptional situations, it may be ethically necessary to go against life-manifestations. For example, to be candid with the secret police in a totalitarian state is unacceptable. The word exceptional is important, however. One should not think that as soon as things do not go one's way, one is in an exceptional situation.

7) Life-manifestations are sovereign and spontaneous with respect to the individual who is identified with them. Life-manifestations are ours, but we do not create them. We cannot will them into existence--they arise spontaneously. They come not from us but from the universe in which we are emplaced.

8) Life-manifestations lend themselves to a religious interpretation of the universe. The fact that life-manifestations are unconditioned indicates that they come from the universe, but the fact that they are ours suggests that human beings are not accidental or irrelevant to the universe.

Løgstrup acknowledged that the grounding of ethical norms is usually performed in a different way than he has done it. Instead of moving "downward" from norms in a pre-ethical direction, towards life-manifestations, most moral philosophers prefer to move "upward" from norms in a meta-ethical direction, towards decisional or logical ethics. In the final part of the section of Løgstrup's book that I summarized, called "Confrontation" (Metaphysics, Vol. II, pp. 388-391), the audaciousness and radicality of his thinking becomes apparent. To summarize it, I think, would be to lose too much of the subtlety and flavor of his writing, and so I have taken the liberty of quoting it in full below. Even if one may not ultimately agree with Løgstrup, or even if one may find his thinking overly philosophical and insufficiently Christian, I think it is worthwhile for all students of theology to read him, because he will pull levers in their brains, so to speak, that other theologians don't pull.

Confrontation
. How one thinks about ethics depends ultimately on how one thinks about the relationship between human beings and the universe. The discussion of naturalism, which moral philosophy cannot well ignore, also indicates this.

From being a natural being the human becomes, with time through biological development, a cultural being. What comes into existence with culture is distance to one's surroundings and to one's own actions in which knowledge and hegemony, administration and planning can develop. Everyone agrees on this.

On the other hand, the ways part when we look to the apprehension of the universe which is the foundation for one moral philosophy or another. My thesis is that, when one moves downward to the life-manifestations, it is because one assumes that the human as an ethical being does not belong to the universe. Certainly, the human appears from the universe, but as an ethical being, he has nevertheless nothing to do with it.

This brings moral philosophy into a difficulty. The human takes his elemental needs from his natural history along into his cultural history. However, there arises a difference between how a human being ought and ought not to treat these needs, one's own and others'. This difference is not to be found in the universe or in the process of biological development from which the needs arise. If the human with his cultural and ethical interests comes to nature and the universe, he meets only indifference.

[it may appear that Løgstrup is here arguing against his own position, but he really isn't, as will become clear momentarily. --MM]

Now, the ought of ethical precepts stands or falls with the fact that we are confronted with it. The question about the origin of the ought of the precepts, therefore, is not to be avoided. Only two answers seem possible and both seem to negate the ought of the precepts. An ought, which we ourselves create, we can also rescind. Thus, it is not an ought, for we cannot be confronted with it. In order to be confronted with it, it must come from the universe. But this is also precluded. Our existence is of another type than that of the universe. The ascending path in moral philosophy leads to a dilemma for which there is no way out.

But how does the relationship between human beings and the universe appear when we take the descending path? As it has already been explained above, the ought of the norm is one of crisis and conflict, occasioned by the confrontation with the unconditionality of the life-manifestation. For that reason, we are cut off from taking back the ethical ought. We can ignore it and we do on a large scale, but this is something else.

To take one example: Speech does not receive its openness from the individual, not from society, but from speech itself. But doesn't speech receive its openness from our candor? No, it is the reverse. Individual candor is grounded in an openness of speech as a pre-individual life-manifestation. It appears in the fact that no matter how insincere we are, openness of speech appears as a demand we ignore and which, for the most part, we know we ignore. Not only do we with our subjects and objects have an agenda for speech, but speech also has an agenda for us with the openness it at once gives and demands. If possible, what is pre-individual about speech appears even more clearly from the fact that we can only be insincere with the help of openness of speech. We can only be mendacious by dissembling and deceiving another. With what? With openness of speech. With it, we make the other person swallow the lie. We can only disregard openness of speech by making it into a mask of openness. Openness can never be eliminated, not in the deepest deception. It is there if we merely speak. It is just as necessary for lying as for speaking truthfully.

The life-manifestation is realized in the world of time and space. At the same time, it is unconditioned. It is both empirical and unconditioned. It is ours, but it is not we who create it. We cannot give an adequate description of the mode in which the life-manifestation appears and the role it plays in the individual's existence without assuming that it does not have its origin in the individual's will and resolution. We say: The life-manifestation has its own thing to do and, in order to be able to do it, it must be latent. We cannot describe the life-manifestation without describing it in its sovereignty in relation to the individual who is identified with it. This indicates that it comes from the nature and the universe in which the individual is emplaced.

As stated above, if we abandon the life-manifestation, we are confronted with its unconditionality. Thus, its unconditionality is evidence of the fact that it is not created by us but comes from the universe. However, this presupposes that the essence of the universe is not different from the existence of the human being in the respects that are decisive for the human being.

This is undeniably at odds with the apprehension of the universe that we otherwise assume. It is here the paths parted. If we maintain that, when we meet with that which we depend upon, we only meet the indifference of the universe, there is no place for life-manifestations and their unconditionality. They are eradicated. There is only room for needs.

This is characteristic of our cultural situation. Everything is need. Whatever moves or drives our existence is a need. The word need has gradually received such a wide meaning that it is almost meaningless. But life-manifestations are not needs. Mercy deals with the needs of the distressed, but not with the needs of the charitable.

Life-manifestations and norms must be kept apart from needs and evaluations. There is nothing ethical in considering happiness something good and pain something bad. Ethically, the first thing one should do is help another human being escape his pain and provide a possibility for happiness and self-development. Mercy presumes that happiness is aimed at and pain is avoided, but these two facts do not, therefore, become more fundamental than mercy, since they are not yet ethical. They do not become ethical by being an evaluation that is presupposed by mercy. The statements "happiness is good" and "pain is evil" are value-statements. They are analytical. Happiness has an inherent positive value, pain a negative. Their role in ethics is due to the fact that they are presumed by an unconditioned life-manifestation such as mercy and, with it, by the norms to which it gives occasion. But for this reason, they are not themselves norms.

If we inquire into the reason that we only count needs as important, the answer is straightforward: The human being takes his needs along from his existence as a natural being over into his existence as a cultural being. Needs do not make the relationship between the human being and the universe problematic, as the life-manifestations do. Life-manifestations prompt a revision in our apprehension of the universe.

Life-manifestations suggest a religious interpretation. I have accounted for this in
Creation and Annihilation
[in my opinion, Løgstrup's greatest book--the bulk of which has been translated as Metaphysics, Vol. I. --MM]. If something so unconditional as a life-manifestation comes from the universe, the idea arises that the human being is not irrelevant to the universe.

I see some interesting congruities between Bresson's humanist vision in A Man Escaped and Løgstrup's concept of life-manifestations.

The Montluc prison certainly seems to justify the exceptional status that Løgstrup requires in summary item #6 for the suspension of life-manifestations. In fact, I would argue, the prison situation in the film inherently calls for a radically dualistic stance from the prisoners. On the one hand, they should completely suspend or suppress life-manifestations when dealing with the guards and prison overseers, but on the other hand, they should let life-manifestations have their full sway (their "agenda," as Løgstrup would have it) when dealing with their fellow prisoners. Maintaining such a radical dualism is not easy. Only Fontaine seems to master it. Some of the men--Blanchet, in particular, at first--find it easier to adopt a defeatist monism that suspends all life-manifestations without distinction. But what about the possibility of spies or snitches among the prisoners? Yes, it is a real possibility, and Fontaine has to exercise his judgment before he trusts Jost, for example (item #5).

So why is Fontaine such an exception? Who can say? As the subtitle of the film says, "Le vent souffle où il veut" (The wind bloweth where it listeth). This comports well with the sovereignty of life-manifestations posited by Løgstrup in item #7. Perhaps only in environments like Montluc, where the outer coverings of society are ruthlessly stripped away, can the full life-sustaining importance of the life-manifestations be seen (item #2). Life-manifestations are normally hidden from our view (item #1).

Mike McIntyre

Edited by tenpenny

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Offscreen Sound in A Man Escaped

Bresson's use of offscreen sound in A Man Escaped is stunning. Aurally, we experience the fact that Montluc prison is located smack-dab in the middle of a bustling major city (Lyon). Train sounds, tram sounds, bus and motorcar sounds, the sounds of children laughing. Even under occupation, life in Lyon is teeming. Is it uplifting, or depressing, for the prisoners to hear such brimful life just beyond their reach? Without these offscreen sounds the film would feel claustrophobic; with them, the film has an invisible quality of spaciousness.

[spoilers ahead...]

During the escape sequence, i.e. starting at the point when Fontaine and Jost reach the rooftop of their building, the offscreen sounds become a palpable presence: trains passing by that cloak the sound of the men's movements on the gravel-surfaced roof; a church bell that tolls hourly to measure the progress of the night; a shrieking train whistle that camouflages the sound of Fontaine's approach when he ambushes and kills the guard (although we neither see nor hear the act itself); the repetitive squeaking noise that mystifies Fontaine--the source of which is only discovered when Fontaine and Jost are at the brink of the final chasm between the second prison building rooftop and the outer prison wall. It is when Fontaine and Jost are at this penultimate juncture that Bresson's genius for using sound reaches its pinnacle.

There is an identifiable "wire motif" in the film: wire from Fontaine's bed frame provides extra strength and reinforcement to the cloth climbing cords; wire is needed for the construction of the crucial third hook, in order to bind together the two small remaining pieces of the metal frame; wire is used to construct the loops that connect the climbing cords to the hooks; Fontaine mentions, in his note that is smuggled out by Terry, a transmitter, which presupposes a wire for an antenna. By the end of the film, Fontaine is a man well-acquainted with the many possible uses of wire!

At the final chasm, there are three utility wires strung slightly below, and perpendicular to, the men's escape route that runs through space from the top of the building to the top of the outer wall. In characteristic fashion, Bresson doesn't show us the three wires one second before he has to, i.e. the exact moment that Fontaine stands ready to hurl the cord across. The presence of these wires means that Fontaine's throw must be accurate. If it should fall short of the outer wall, the hook on the far end of the cord would likely snag on the wires during retrieval of the cord, probably preventing a second attempt. Fontaine's throw does clear the outer wall, but when he pulls on the cord in order to engage the hook on the outer wall, he (we can suppose) feels an unexpected resistance.

It is often said about this film that we see what Fontaine sees--no more. But that can never be strictly true. At this moment we see what Fontaine cannot--that the hook is caught on a wire that is outside, and slightly below, the top of the outer wall. But there can be no rethrow, so Fontaine has no choice but to pull harder on the cord, in order to cinch the connection as best he can. When he does this, the snagged wire protests its deformation with a clamant, reverberating sound that takes a full ten seconds to fade away. Fontaine stops pulling, fearing that the sound may have betrayed the men to the lone guard bicycling endlessly around the prison's perimeter (the source of the mysterious squeaking sound). It hasn't. So Fontaine pulls again, and the snagged wire again "sings" in protest, but this time the cinch is completed, and without alerting the guard.

The sound that this wire makes under tension is the perfect metaphor for the great tension the men are under. And, apart from that, what an interesting sound it is! When perturbed, long wires do make interesting sounds. There is even an obscure musical genre for this sort of thing (e.g. see Alan Lamb, Matt DeGennaro and Alastair Galbraith). And the thing is, the sound you hear when a wire is perturbed is not caused just by the wire--it is as much caused by whatever the wire is attached to, and even the structure that surrounds or encloses the wire in space. So even here, the sound effect Bresson uses is partially offscreen, because we cannot see what the wire is attached to. It sounds, to my ear, as though the wire may be attached to a metal pipe, i.e. the sound has a pipe-like quality to it.

Finally, when Fontaine is on top of the outer wall, looking for the best spot from which to jump down to the ground, Bresson uses the offscreen sound of a high-revving motorcycle. It can't help but make us recall the movie Bresson made prior to this one, Diary of a Country Priest, and the scene in which the Curé d'Ambricourt (played by Claude Laydu) accepted the motorcycle ride from Olivier. It was the only time in that film when the priest seemed genuinely happy. Here, just prior to the wonderful moment when Fontaine's feet touch ground outside the prison, the sound of a motorcycle once again heralds liberation.

Mike McIntyre

Edited by tenpenny

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As I continue to read Knud Løgstrup's work, my appreciation for its explanatory power, vis-à-vis this film, grows. In so saying, I don't mean that a Løgstrupian reading of A Man Escaped is necessary in order to interpret the film. In other words, I would not go as far as Allen Thither apparently did, as cited in the excellent review of this film by forum member Doug Cummings, when he said:

It is, in fact, with a Kierkegaardian understanding of religious paradox that one must begin an interpretation of
Un condamné à mort
, for in one sense this is a film about an unmediated relationship between the particular and the absolute. The cultural context that grounds the narrative project is, in general terms, that system of existentialist religious values in which the oppositions of faith and despair, freedom and grace, or spirit and flesh establish a coherent semantic field.

I will mention, somewhat parenthetically, the curious fact that large tracts of Denmark's cultural and artistic landscape seem destined to remain forever locked up tightly within that small nation's borders. To be sure, portions of it are known elsewhere. The world knows Andersen, Kierkegaard, Dinesen, Dreyer. The Danish language is a barrier, of course (only 5.5 million speakers), but language alone doesn't entirely explain it. How, for example, is it possible that such a titan as N. F. S. Grundtvig (1783-1872), whose achievements and abilities are equal to Goethe's, is virtually unknown to the rest of the world? (Even one of Grundtvig's detractors, after deriding "his colossal errors, his manifest egoism," referred to him as "this wonder and phenomenon of nature" and concluded that "it seemed to me that we were all more or less clever pygmies alongside this half-demented demigod.")

Knud E. Løgstrup (1905-1981) is certainly the most important, and theologically relevant, Danish philosopher since Kierkegaard and yet his influence beyond the Nordic countries (and, to a lesser extent, in Germany) has been almost nonexistent. The axis of theologically-influential philosophy no longer runs anywhere near Denmark, it seems. Denmark was allotted its one such philosopher, and it was Kierkegaard; thereafter, the axis went south to a fixed German-French latitude.

Despite this, I will here translate a paragraph from Løgstrup's work titled Etiske begreger og problemer [Ethical concepts and problems], and then relate it to two scenes in Bresson's film. On page 24 of his work, Løgstrup is writing about phenomena he calls "the sovereign life-manifestations" (de suveræne livsytringer). He is attempting to show an important distinction between them and what he elsewhere refers to as "circling" (kredsende) life-manifestations. Løgstrup writes:

Human existence is possibility, as Kierkegaard and with him existential philosophy, notably Heidegger, have analyzed it. Not only the sovereign life-manifestations, trust, sincerity, mercy are possibility, but also distrust, insincerity, mercilessness. But already in their possibility's nature there is disparity between them. The possibility can either carry further or lock in place, either break open or close in. Trust, sincerity, mercy engender new possibilities, for the other and for oneself. Distrust, insincerity, mercilessness show a tendency to take away from existence, the other's and one's own, its character of possibility and make it a compulsion-sequence. Trust is a possibility-maintaining possibility. Distrust is a possibility-annulling possibility.

Now consider the following fourteen-word exchange between Fontaine and Terry in the film, which occurs very soon after Fontaine has been beaten and has briefly lost hope. The setup: Fontaine is at his cell window, looking out into the prison compound. Three men (and such interesting men they are -- even the two who never speak are fascinating to look at) are walking together back and forth in the compound, sometimes close to Fontaine's window. Fontaine engages one of the men in a conversation, if one can label such fleeting and furtive exchanges with such a prosaic word. Fear of detection by their German overseers requires that the three men keep moving almost constantly, and so the single conversation must be punctuated by several perambulations around the compound. The crucial exchange is this one, which must have suited Bresson's sense of concision perfectly:

- Your name?

- Fontaine.

- I'm Terry.

- Can I get messages out?

- I know a way.

After the conversation is over, and Fontaine has climbed down from the window in his cell, he mentally narrates the following line. I believe it is the most beautiful line in the film. The world in twelve words:

Because a stranger "knew a way" everything had already changed for me.

It seems to me that an interpretation which belabors the importance of fate or chance in Fontaine's "difference" from the other prisoners overlooks too much. It would be foolish to deny that good fortune plays some part in every life, but the exchange between Fontaine and Terry, and more importantly Fontaine's actions subsequent to it, illustrate that Fontaine's "difference" from the others is less a matter of good fortune than it is a matter of his understanding the life-sustaining power of what Løgstrup calls the sovereign life-manifestations. In the exchange between Fontaine and Terry the sovereign life-manifestation that is present is trust (tillid). To trust the wrong person in such an environment can have fatal consequences. Yet Fontaine and Terry trust each other spontaneously -- Fontaine by asking "Can I get messages out?" and Terry by replying "I know a way." Why spontaneously? Because, Løgstrup would say, spontaneity is in the nature of a sovereign life-manifestation. In fact, his full expression for these phenomena, which he often reduces for brevity's sake, is "sovereign and spontaneous life-manifestations." This is not to say that Fontaine always trusts spontaneously, or even that he should. Notably, his decision to trust Jost is protracted and carefully examined. But trust Jost he ultimately does, when a man more instrumentally-oriented would have killed Jost in his sleep, or by surprise, prior to escaping. If anyone in A Man Escaped is blessed with gratuitous good fortune, surely it is Jost! He's been in the prison no time at all, compared to the others, and yet he just happens to be paired up with the one man in the prison who is on the verge of successfully escaping?

The other scene in the film I'd like to briefly mention is the one between Fontaine and Blanchet. It goes like this, Blanchet speaking first:

- Orsini had to fail so you could succeed.

- It's extraordinary.

- I'm not teaching you anything.

- Yes, you are... what's extraordinary is that you just said it.

Blanchet has, of course, slowly reoriented himself during the film in response to Fontaine: initially uncommunicative, later scolding, but finally fully complicit in Fontaine's escape. A remarkable turnaround! The sovereign life-manifestations are the foundation (grundlæggelse) for it, Løgstrup would say. Not in the sense of the workings of some blind life-force, or fate, but as a possibility-maintaining possibility, which was grasped by a remarkable man (Fontaine) who, in turn, shared it with others.

Mike McIntyre

Edited by tenpenny

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Such a beautiful thread... That film should awaken such thought is why i love the form... Would that more films prompted this sort of discussion. i need to see some Bresson.

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