A Man Escaped (1956, Robert Bresson)

I’ve been watching Bresson’s earliest films in order, culminating in this extras-packed blu-ray of A Man Escaped. When I first started watching Bresson films (Au Hazard Balthazar, Lancelot of the Lake, The Devil Probably) I couldn’t figure out his style or why he was so acclaimed. Then I saw A Man Escaped and Pickpocket and loved them, but couldn’t say exactly why. Now I’m slowly figuring that out, though I still don’t really get Bresson’s worldview or what he means when he talks about his kind of cinema. He create subtle effects through careful modulation of elements that are usually more expressive: framing, editing and especially acting. This could lead to boredom, but he’s also using high-tension scenarios in A Man Escaped and Pickpocket, and the constant fear of getting caught clashes in interesting ways with the flat affect of the performance, plus this movie’s nonstop (sometimes redundant) narration provides the inner thoughts that the lead character’s blank expression hides. There are only brief bursts of music (I learned in the extras that Bresson plays Mozart whenever the lead character meets with someone who might aid his escape). All the movie’s tension and repression pays off after the final escape as Fontaine and his late-recruited cellmate Jost walk into the freedom of the night fog and the Mozart rises, the transcendence that Bresson was aiming for.

K. Elmore:

Bresson and André Devigny, the real-life former prisoner of war on whose experiences A Man Escaped was based, had differing ideas of what type of actor should be cast in the role of Fontaine. Feeling that the character must look physically capable of making the escape, Devigny presented Bresson with a young paratrooper and military triathlete. Bresson, however, was interested in making a “very psychological, very internal” film, as Devigny puts it, and chose the philosophy student François Leterrier, who, though he didn’t resemble Devigny in build, had very expressive eyes.

T. Pipolo:

The economy, purity, and rigor of Bresson’s aesthetic are directly related to his vision of the world, a complex perspective that carefully balances a belief in free will against the notion of preexistent design. For example, while A Man Escaped seems to be clearly mobilized by the protagonist’s will to be free, at the same time, Bresson said his aim was to “show the miracle [of] an invisible hand over the prison, directing what happens.” Thus, the propulsive trajectory of Bresson’s narratives — a result of the removal of excess and the refinement of technique — serves his overriding theme that human lives follow an implacable course. This is also apparent in such later masterpieces as Au hasard Balthazar (1966), Mouchette (1967), Lancelot of the Lake (1974), and L’argent (1983), despite their widely different subjects and increasingly cynical view of a world in which spiritual redemption seems to have vanished.

Elmore again:

Bresson put [assistant Louis] Malle in charge of Fontaine’s spoons, rope, hooks, and other escape implements, saying “Since you come from documentary, you take care of the props.”

Pipolo again:

Bresson’s method of creating character was not through the actor’s performance but through the actions performed — an approach that emphasized the external world and concrete reality. It is what a fictional figure does that creates character; his inner self is revealed by his outward actions and how he performs them. In short, action is character.

The Cineastes episode opens with long, uncommented section of Bresson films, then bursts of quickly-edited Bresson speaking philosophically, hating on filmed theater and escapism, finally settling down on an interview where he is hoping that filmmakers younger than himself can create the poetic “cinematograph” that he dreams of. It’s all very quotable, but he needs to use more examples so we’ll understand what he’s on about. Bresson also discusses his ideas for a cancelled film on Genesis. Listening to his theories, I started to wonder if Straub/Huillet were up to the same thing, but research (including my own post on Class Relations) says not exactly.

Bresson: “People say I was Rene Clair’s assistant. I never was. If I had been, I wouldn’t mind saying so.”

Functions of Film Sound is only about the sound of A Man Escaped. I’m amazed that he required 50 takes of some shots and still post-synched the whole thing – you’d think all the takes are required to get the vocal delivery just right, but that was just for the visual delivery – dialogue took another pile of takes a few weeks or months later.

Elmore:

All of the dialogue in the film was rerecorded in a studio. Bresson would say the line to the actor, and he would repeat it back to him, usually no fewer than forty to sixty times. Then Bresson edited together the best take of each word to re-create the line of dialogue.

The Essence of Forms opens with lead actor Francois Leterrier’s disclaimer that Bresson would not approve of any of this, then he gives stories and analysis of Bresson and his methods. “He never gave directions about interiority.”

Cinematographer Pierre Lhomme: “We saw several films together. He never liked them. He’d quiver in his seat, muttering ‘How can they do such things?’ It didn’t seem bad to me.”

The Road to Bresson: The filmmakers use the Story of Film technique of shooting their documentary footage in the style that their subject might use. This one quotes Bresson’s book and redundantly (in blu-ray terms) excerpts the Cineastes episode (however it also makes the point that Bresson used redundancy in his films). Good feature, and it was made after L’Argent so it covers a wider range of work than the others. I liked Paul Schrader’s explanation of transcendental film style, summarizing the book he wrote on Ozu, Bresson and Dreyer. Happy ending: for his final film, Bresson received a Cannes award alongside Tarkovsky, presented by Orson Welles.

Bresson gets a laugh at the press conference.
Q: “Why do you make films that frustrate viewers?”
RB: “What viewer are you talking about?”

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