For those uninitiated with the work of Robert Bresson, the very title of his 1956 masterpiece, A Man Escaped, may suggest a hopeful movie. The story of a French Resistance fighter imprisoned by the Nazis in Vichy, Bresson's film gives away from the start that Fontaine (François Leterrier) will break free of his bondage. But that knowledge does not undermine Bresson's preternatural ability to eke suspense from anything, whether the story of a Nietzschian thief or a donkey doubling as Christ, by mixing a stark, precise aesthetic with metaphysical musings that seem, on paper, completely opposed to each other.
The characters in Bresson's films are not given to engaging in open philosophical soliloquies, drawing their worldviews instead from matter-of-fact observations and reasoning for actions that communicate a progression of the spirit as much as the plot. Fontaine is no different: on his way to Montluc prison at the start, the prisoner lunges out of his car, only to be immediately re-captured and viciously pistol-whipped for his offense. Fontaine's first lines come in the form of a voiceover, calmly describing the injuries he suffered from the beating while sitting on his prison cot covered in his own blood. The dispassion of Fontaine's narration present the freedom fighter as a man unafraid of death, hardened through his struggle into an unbreakable spirit.
However, his thoughts soon turn to escape, where they stay for the rest of the film. Fontaine meticulously plans his breakout, setting aside just enough time to write a message to his comrades warning them that the Germans have broken their code before setting out to carve his way out of Montluc. The detail eclipses even that of Pickpocket as Fontaine carefully fashions what meager items he can get his hands on -- like a spoon or the the wire of his bed frame -- into instruments to chip away at the wooden boards of his door and bind ropes made from torn clothes.
The precise detail of Fontaine's plan, delivered through exacting narration and the crisp realism of Bresson's mise-en-scène, generate suspense through their intricacy: far from a mere device to boast of accuracy and conducting research, the complexity and longevity of Fontaine's scheming allows Bresson to build the prisoner's plight into a thriller: even with the ending in the title, we know that a single kink in the plan can unravel everything Fontaine has accomplished over months of deliberately paced subterfuge. Without ever sensationalizing the action -- by running in the opposite direction, in fact -- the glacial pace creates more discomfort than any other prison escape film I've seen, and Bresson does not even show violence and prisoner abuse on-screen, much less the more salacious side of the prison movie.
Bresson's habit of relegating the most horrific action just outside the frame, a habit he would develop to its zenith in Au hasard Balthazar, allows him to imbue his film with the true, confined feelings of a prison by defining this diegetic world through the whistles, clattering footfalls and shouted orders of the prison guards that constantly clamor around Fontaine's cell, rising and falling as they increase and decrease in proximity but always communicating the possibility of a guard hearing the scratching Fontaine's tools emit -- made out to be deafening in their skittering rasps. The beating of a fellow inmate and his eventual execution are "shown" only in the form of muffled sounds of thudding punches and the ratatat of machine gunfire, letting our imagination supply the images in contrast to the borderline oversharing of detail in what is actually shown. Bresson uses as many close-ups on hands as he would in Pickpocket, starting with the opening scenes of Fontaine's hand creeping toward the door latch as the German driver downshifts gears, each close-up of his own hands generating a brief moment of doubt as to whether he will speed back up again or finally stop the car. This combination of attention to detail and more open-ended elision forms an aesthetic foil for the thematic approach of the material.
Fontaine's refusal to accept his fate, even when faced with an execution sentence, sets him apart from so many other Bresson characters. Unlike the Raskolnikov stand-in of Pickpocket, who justified his actions to himself, and poor Balthazar, dragged around by his various masters, Fontaine believes in free will. This is an oddity in Bresson's canon, to the point that even the other characters of A Man Escaped begin to view the protagonist as a larger-than-life being: when one prisoner remarks that no one can change fate, another breathlessly says, "He can." No one else has even attempted to escape, thinking it impossible, but Fontaine's resolve reignites the fire in several other inmates. His dedication demonstrates a resolve long ago purged from his comrades, and the blood that stains Fontaine's clothes takes on a cleansing, semi-religious property despite its filthy look and its mortal connotations.
For Fontaine's escape attempt, motivated, according to him, as the result of "luck and idleness," is really a test of faith. If a portion of his plan goes awry and the whole construct unravels, then that scheme requires a great deal of faith. And what may at first seem like cowardice and fear of death slowly morphs into a more redemptive arc, as Fontaine begins to use his clout with the other prisoners to help boost their morale, encouraging the other prisoner attempting to escape to "be strong." Fontaine's perseverance becomes even more visible an act of conviction when the other prisoners start to lose their own faith in him, believing Fontaine to be acting too slowly in his gentle chiseling and rope tying.
The way in which Bresson equates the risks Fontaine takes in his actions and the underlying themes of salvation and faith makes a strong case for A Man Escaped as one of the director's finest works (admittedly a largely redundant distinction): when an old prisoner walks by Fontaine's first cell and smuggles him items and offers to get a message to Fontaine's comrades still fighting, the protagonist must decide whether this man is sincere in his promises of risking his and his daughter's life to smuggle out letters or if he's a broken dissident who will rat to the guards. Likewise, when guards dump a teenager named Jost in Fontaine's cell shortly before Fontaine's execution, the doomed prisoner wonders if the new guy, who joined the German army in hopes of self-preservation, is nothing more than a collaborateur sent to pry information from a man possibly made willing to speak to save his skin. Faced with the option of killing Jost and getting back to his escape, Fontaine ultimately decides to trust the kid and bring him along in the escape. This act completes his progression from a fearful, self-absorbed caged rat trying to claw his way to freedom to a truly compassionate individual giving a much younger individual a second chance to live a life about to be denied him.
Furthermore, this act reflects Bresson's practice of using his films as larger commentaries on French society, commentaries that are usually bleak and highly critical. Here, however, the director really does give in to the hope contained in the title, fashioning Fontaine into a symbol of the Resistance helping Jost (whose mixture of French and German uniforms clearly identifies him as a representative of Vichy). Yet Bresson does not cast aside the conquered French: "Alone, I might have remained there," Fontaine muses, acknowledging both the impracticality and the worthlessness of pursuing goals solo as well as the wrongheaded dismissal of those not openly members of the Resistance in the rebuilding of France.
Only Bresson could juggle this imagery without once sacrificing the immediacy and relevancy of the story as its own end. "This is a true story," Bresson reminds us at the start, though one can easily dispute his claim that he tells it "as it happened, unadorned." Based on the memoirs of André Devigny, Bresson swaps out the author's courage for the more flawed desire for self-preservation in Fontaine. However, the director does not disrespect Devigny with this change, instead infusing his own youthful experience as a prisoner in Vichy for being a member of the Resistance. And by altering the protagonist into a character faced with fears and doubts, Bresson molds the story not into a hollow display of inspirational pluck but a far more spiritually engaging work that ultimately draws true inspiration by allowing us to see a man become a hero rather than a hero simply act according to his nature. For those who complain that Bresson could be too arch and bleak in his vision, A Man Escaped manages to be both while overcoming these traits: the structure works on an allegorical level as a study of France during World War II, yet it also presents perhaps the director's most human, endearing narrative. I may prefer the more scabrous and damning Au hasard Balthazar, but I'll be revisiting this feature just as often.