A Man Escaped is probably the best jailbreak movie ever made. Who said Shawshank? What’s more it was made almost as an “anti-movie” movie by a director so disdainful of cinema trickery and excess that he turned out one film after another to demonstrate that you don’t need it all, and that when it comes to drama on the big screen, sound is at least as important as image, possibly more so.
Set in 1943 in Nazi-occupied France, it simply follows a Resistance fighter called Lafontaine (François Leterrier) into and then out of prison again. Taken in by the Nazis, escaping under his own steam, using nothing but ingenuity and everyday objects.
A spoon fashioned into a chisel, a rope made from torn-up sheets, a grappling hook from reworked bits of his bed, Bresson gives us it all in fine, fine detail, his camera focusing on the important thing and ignoring all else. So no “over the shoulder” shots when people are in dialogue, not a single glimpse of a guard’s face, just Lafontaine, his cell, his tools, the occasional scene in the washroom where the prisoners try to exchange information (“no talking” is a constant refrain) and out in the exercise yard where they rinse out their slop pails every day.
Nor does Bresson give us image if sound will do, and vice versa, which is his normal way of working (why “say” something twice?). But he does do two things that aren’t usual for him. He uses non actors, ironically allowing them much more “acting” leeway than he usually does with his professionals, who in films like Au hasard Balthasar and Mouchette move almost zombie-like through Bresson’s scenarios, affectlessness the goal.
The other thing is a voiceover, Lafontaine’s, which runs through the entire film, commenting on what we’re seeing, explaining what’s going on, all spoken from some point in the future. It seems superfluous, given that the story being told is entirely obvious and needs no explanation. Quite what Bresson is up to here isn’t entirely obvious. Maybe, like Lars Von Trier and his famous Obstructions, Bresson is setting himself a challenge. A story about a man escaping from prison told by a man who has already escaped from prison is, to say the least, giving the game away a bit. Where’s the tension if we know he makes it out?
There’s plenty. Bresson crafts it by focusing on intense moments, drama in miniature, like Lafontaine scraping away at the wooden boards of his cell door with his makeshift chisel. Or crawling over the rooftops with his bulky ropes made of sheets, the field of view restricted just to what’s necessary and nothing more. And by making this a display of Olympic levels of ingenuity and determination.
There is a redemptive angle, and talk of god, the importance of hope in making life bearable. Like the religious stuff in a Graham Greene novel, none of it is necessary in terms of story but it adds emotional undertow.
You can ignore it, but the same can’t be said of the soundscape – the crunch of gravel, the pipe of a train whistle, a guard’s keys clanking against an iron staircase, the scratch of spoon on wood, all are heavy with importance, in particular once the “action” (barely any) shifts from Lafontaine’s cell and out onto the rooftop on the night of the escape.
To throw attention onto the what we hear rather than what we see, Bresson shoots in a black and white that’s full of midtones, though as the climax approaches his DP, Léonce-Henri Burel, turns up the contrast a touch, so Lafontaine and his cellmate start to vibrate slightly against their backgrounds. (I wondered whether this was just an artefact in Criterion’s restoration, which is excellent, though I’m also not entirely convinced by the look of the grain – re-added in post production?)
I remember watching this film as a kid on TV, in the days when foreign-language movies would get late-night screenings on mainstream channels in the UK. It absolutely gripped me. I was maybe ten and haven’t seen A Man Escaped since, till yesterday. It gripped me again, in exactly the same way.
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© Steve Morrissey 2022