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Movie Review: Robert Bresson’s A MAN ESCAPED Mines Unconventional Aesthetics for Nail-Biting Suspense

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I wonder if Robert Bresson knew what he was up to when he crafted his 1956 masterpiece A Man Escaped; the film feels unobtrusively, perfectly pitched right at the divide between art and commerce, and it’s all the better for this split.

In its conception and aesthetic, A Man Escaped has the ascetic tenor of the art film.  Bresson draws on the prison break experiences of Allied Resistance member André Devigny, but he abstracts the details past the place where most historical “entertainments” define themselves.  Barring some Nazi uniforms and chatter among the prisoners, Bresson includes almost no WWII signifiers, and he also refuses to cast his work in simple moral poles.  To him, the only thing that matters is the setting (a jail cell) and the person (François Leterrier, playing a Devigny surrogate called Fontaine) trying to break out of it.  If we empathize with Bresson’s hero, it isn’t because Fontaine does anything particularly heroic – he is so rigidly focused on the task at hand that his obsession consumes us as well.

And Bresson’s style invites us to lose ourselves in the character.  Fontaine is stoic to the point of impassive; rarely does Leterrier radiate conventional fear/courage/devotion/pain, choosing instead to keep his expression blank, unreadable (A Man Escaped‘s lone misstep: a narration track that fills in all the emotional gaps that Bresson and Leterrier would otherwise leave ambiguous).  Bresson even denies us traditional genre thrills.  Case in point: at one point in his escape, Fontaine has to kill a Nazi guard, and Bresson stages the murder – the film’s most explicit scene of violence – obliquely, so much so that a few minutes pass before we realize what has transpired.

However, we never feel distanced from Fontaine because Bresson paints his actions with such precise visual grammar.  Much of A Man Escaped unfolds in close-ups of Fontaine’s hands as he prepares rope from wire and fabric, jerry-rigs grappling hooks out of iron bars, uses an iron chisel (which starts out as a spoon – if nothing else, A Man Escaped is essential viewing for the amateur escape artist) to shave away parts of his cell’s wooden door.  This is a pure action movie, in the truest sense of the word, one where the doing matters more than any rote editorializing.

And its this aspect that Bresson crosses over into commerce.  I respect A Man Escaped for its sterility, for its nontraditional approach to character, for the way it forces the viewer to connect Fontaine’s actions to their ultimate objectives.  I love the movie because assuming you’re willing to key into its wavelength, it provides an uncommonly suspenseful screen experience.  This is one of the great thrillers – I’d rank it alongside Wages of Fear and The Driver – and like those two features, its greatness comes from its pared-down approach.  There’s no fat here, no cutaways or superfluous characters, and that relentless focus leaves us gasping.  I have never so grateful for a movie to end, and not because it’s bad.  Rather, A Man Escaped functions a ninety-nine-minute exercise in sustained tension.

Bresson mines so much tension from a tiny wooden slat snapping unexpectedly or a glass pane that shatters just enough to break the silence of the prison dormitories at night – we grow so familiar with how these tasks should play out that the slightest deviations are enough to drive us up the wall.

Even the presence of other people becomes agonizing to bear.  Fontaine’s solitary escape preparations are so encompassing that we regard it with no small horror when the Gestapo forces him to bunk with a disgraced German soldier.  Part of that effect comes from the aesthetic dissonance – we spend so much time alone with Fontaine that the German registers as an oppressive, alien figure in the small cell – but Bresson never lets us forget the narrative complications the soldier represents.  Is he really a prisoner, or a spy sent to dismantle Fontaine’s escape plans?  And if so, to what extent is Fontaine willing to go in order to preserve his chance at freedom?  Far too many thrillers resort to killing as their sole means of interest that it’s a little surprising to see a movie regard the anticipation of violence with equal significance.

The film culminates in a fifteen-minute escape sequence that’s right up there with the heist in Rififi or Clint Eastwood’s exodus in Escape from Alcatraz.  Again, though, what’s shocking is what Bresson omits from Fontaine’s efforts.  We don’t get any establishing shots or exposition; we experience everything when he does, from braving the gap between two walls to waiting for a prison guard to stop moving.  It’s a sustained masterwork, the ending, and a fitting capper to a picture that goes out of its way to avoid the obvious and still makes your hair stand on end.

Criterion’s Blu-ray uses the recent Gaumont restoration of A Man Escaped, and the picture is uniformly wonderful – good detail, sharp focus, and a pleasing grain structure.  Even better is the LPCM monaural soundtrack.  Bresson turns sound into a character, and the audio mix ensures we hear his effects with perfect clarity.

Unsurprisingly, Criterion has put together a stunning supplements package – there’s over three hours of behind-the-scenes footage.  Bresson is the subject of two featurettes – the hour-plus “Bresson: Without a Trace” from the French television series “Cineastes de Notre Temps” and the hour-long Dutch documentary “Road to Bresson” which finds scholars and filmmakers opining about his style – while A Man Escaped gets the deluxe treatment in the forty-five-minute “The Essence of Forms” and the twenty-minute visual essay “Functions of Film Sound.”  The disc also has the film’s original trailer and a booklet with an essay from critic Tony Pipolo.

The film merits all the critical attention, and yours, too.  This is one of the most accessible and entertaining art-house thrillers ever made.

A Man Escaped is now available on Blu-ray.  Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.