Lieutenant Fontaine (Francois Leterrier), a French Resistance fighter, has been arrested by the Germans and their French collaborators for sabotage. The attempted sabotage and actual arrest have occurred in pre-filmic time. Bresson thus begins the film in media res. In the opening scene, Fontaine attempts to escape from a moving car, but is quickly recaptured, beaten, and then driven to a German-run military prison. Placed in a small, white-walled cell, Fontaine's experiences are limited to the length and breadth of the cell, along with whatever human contact he can make from the vantage point of a high window and his daily sojourns to wash his face and empty his bucket in the courtyard. For the remainder of the film, the audience shares the debilitating constraints placed on Fontaine's physical movements. Fontaine's world is contained in that cell, and the audience shares that cell with him. Audience identification with the main character is additionally deepened through the use of a voice-over narration, Fontaine's. The audience is given access to Fontaine's private thoughts, most of them rigidly tied to his present and future goals, but the past tense employed in the voice-narration also suggests that the film can be read as an extended flashback, the main character reminiscing about his imprisonment and subsequent escape at some future point in time. Generally, a voice-over narration that employs the past tense weakens dramatic tension (given the foreknowledge the audience now has about the resolution of the external conflict), but here it serves to refocus the audience's attention away from the realization of Fontaine's ultimate goal to the step-by-step achievement of that goal. The audience, in short, becomes immersed, not in the conditional question of escape, but in the exploration of the methods he uses to escape.
The near claustrophobia of Fontaine's cell and his dilemma are answered by Fontaine's effort to escape the military prison before he can be executed by the Germans (at some unspecified future time, the better to break his resistance to their interrogations). Fontaine's plan grows organically from his character; he is defined by his desire for freedom. The other prisoners, in contrast, either accept their fates with stoic resignation or crushing despair, or react spontaneously, erratically to the idea of escape (with fatal consequences). Fontaine's desire for freedom becomes externalized into obsession, and that obsession is expressed by the attempted removal of the first of several obstacles: the thick wooden boards in the door to his cell. Bresson focuses not on means as much as process: the methodical removal of wood chips over the course of nights, weeks, and possibly months from the door. Speed and urgency are limited by the possibility of exposure (and its harsh consequences). But the wooden door is but one obstacle in Fontaine's path to freedom: he must still find a means of escaping from the prison compound undetected by the German guards, as well as overcome his increasing self-doubt and, in the third act, confront a stark, new dilemma: a new cellmate, who may or may not be a French collaborator. Fontaine must decide, without objective evidence, to either disclose his plans to his new cellmate (and risk discovery) or, as his voice over narration coldly informs us, murder him. He can only rely on intuition (and faith) to guide his decision.
Bresson matches the simplicity of his narrative approach with a unique filmmaking style that itself favors sparseness, in lighting, shot selection and composition, in the use of actual locations, the use of non-professional actors trained into impassivity, and in the avoidance of non-diegetic sound (i.e., Bresson avoids using a musical score to underscore or underline the emotional content of individual scenes, and only uses non-diegetic music by Mozart for specifically non-dramatic scenes). Bresson also eschews establishing shots to open individual scenes. With the exception of the opening credit sequence, the military prison is seen from a highly fragmented and limited perspective, Fontaine's. Fontaine's cell is divided and subdivided between multiple shots, connected only through the editing. The audience is never offered a high-angle or overhead shot of the cell or the main character in the cell to establish spatial relationships. Instead, Bresson's fragmentary approach is used to reflect Fontaine's subjective experience of his limited surroundings, which in turn leads to a heightened sense of audience identification with the protagonist. Bresson's relies on unconventional close-ups, primarily focusing on hands and everyday objects, and those hands at work (whether chipping at the wooden door to Fontaine's cell, or creating lengths of rope from strips of clothes, bedding, and wires extracted from the bed frame in Fontaine's cell). Bresson's shot selection adds another layer of meaning, however, by emphasizing Fontaine not just at work, but also in contemplative repose, often with his back to the camera, his head angled upwards, facing the high window as the sunlight streams into his cell, promising, but withholding, his freedom. This shot, repeated several times in the film, also seems to suggest more a monastic cell than a prison cell. The close-ups and the back-to-camera shots are examples of the accumulation of detail that results in a surprising emotional power by the end of the film.
Both narrative structure and filmmaking style, then, lead to a sense of (patient) inevitability, of character distilled into action, and ultimately, to a poignant, almost spiritual affirmation of grace through action. That pervading sense of spirituality isnít defined by outward expressions of religiosity (although the prison contains a Catholic priest as well, and discussions of faith, fate, and free will are discussed), but spiritual grace acquired through concrete, external action, through self-willed action directed toward a higher goal (and grace achieved through the immersion in process and routine). Even then, Bresson suggests that hard-won grace is insufficient to achieve that higher goal or purpose. Fontaine recognizes that he lives within a community of prisoners, each with individual goals and attitudes toward their confinement (and possible deaths). It is from this community of prisoners that Fontaine receives tangible and moral support, and ultimately finds a reaffirmation of self-worth. His actions also acquire symbolic meaning for this community, his escape, with whatever aid they can offer, becomes their (spiritual) escape as well.
A Man Escaped is, in short, a film that richly belongs in the front ranks of 20th century European cinema.
© Mel Valentin, 25th August, 2004
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