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A Man Escaped (1956)

Robert Bresson

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#1 Overstreet

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Posted 06 July 2004 - 05:07 PM

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.



#2 M. Leary

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Posted 07 July 2004 - 11:26 AM

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.

#3 SDG

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Posted 07 July 2004 - 12:42 PM

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.

QUOTE
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.

#4 Overstreet

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Posted 07 July 2004 - 12:51 PM

QUOTE
Is this the first time that you have watched it?


Yes.

#5 rathmadder

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Posted 07 July 2004 - 04:41 PM

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.

#6 M. Leary

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Posted 07 July 2004 - 04:55 PM

QUOTE (SDG @ Jul 7 2004, 01:41 PM)
QUOTE
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."

QUOTE
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?

#7 Doug C

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Posted 07 July 2004 - 06:04 PM

QUOTE
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.


#8 Overstreet

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Posted 07 July 2004 - 06:13 PM

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.

#9 Ron Reed

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Posted 08 July 2004 - 02:52 AM

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.

#10 M. Leary

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Posted 08 July 2004 - 10:51 AM

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

#11 Ron Reed

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Posted 09 July 2004 - 02:03 AM

QUOTE ((M)Leary @ Jul 8 2004, 07:50 AM)
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.

#12 SDG

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Posted 09 July 2004 - 03:36 AM

QUOTE (Ron @ Jul 9 2004, 03:02 AM)
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.

#13 rathmadder

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Posted 09 July 2004 - 07:11 AM

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.

#14 Doug C

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Posted 09 July 2004 - 09:38 AM

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, 09 July 2004 - 09:40 AM.


#15 Doug C

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Posted 09 July 2004 - 11:21 AM

Here are some very illuminating comments from Allen Thiher's essay, "Bresson's Un condamné ŕ mort: The Semiotics of Grace," reprinted in James Quandt's recent collection on Bresson. It's a little dense (very poststructuralist '70s criticism), but I think it's accessible and has a lot to say about why I love the film so much:

"In semantic terms, titles often direct the viewer toward a context that offers the first key to meaning, and in the case of Bresson's film the double title orients us toward the fundamental series of oppositions that provide a general context. The film's visible action--the escape--is informed by an absent spiritual drama that stands in opposition to the present material drama of resistance and escape. . . . Fontaine's escape from the German prison, the manifest struggle for freedom in the world, is doubled by a spiritual determinism, for it is grace that allows him to overcome his captors. This opposition, a paradox in the eyes of the world, gives rise to secondary oppositions that both inform the narrative and generate secondary levels of meaning. For example, Fontaine struggles in prison to vanquish isolation and to achieve fraternal communion. This opposition derives its full meaning from its relationship to the religious drama, especially insofar as this opposition is part of the religious paradox: the prison actually allows these prisoners to overcome isolation and to enter into true communion. To give another pointed opposition, one might consider the relation between the material presence of evil and the despair to which it might lead, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the seemingly gratuitous faith that never abandons the hero, a paradox that is expressed existentially as a constant leap of faith.

The film's narrative project is thus grounded in a rhythm that alternately turns on solitude and communion, the absurd and faith, and freedom and grace, in a series of related oppositions that endow all elements in the film with meaning. . . . It is through such an understanding of the film that Bresson has created one of the few truly Christian films that exist, and certainly no other film testifies so elegantly to the paradoxes of the Christian faith."

Edited by Doug C, 09 July 2004 - 11:22 AM.


#16 Doug C

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Posted 09 July 2004 - 11:44 AM

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

#17 Doug C

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Posted 09 July 2004 - 11:55 AM

QUOTE
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.


#18 mike_h

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Posted 09 July 2004 - 02:16 PM

QUOTE (rathmadder @ Jul 9 2004, 06:10 AM)
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.

#19 Ron Reed

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Posted 29 October 2004 - 05:29 PM

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, 09 November 2004 - 09:51 PM.


#20 Ron Reed

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Posted 29 October 2004 - 08:38 PM

QUOTE(Alan Thomas @ Oct 29 2004, 05:29 PM)
I would be honored. Maybe you can simply mention artsandfaith.com ?

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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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