Robert Bresson outdoes nearly every escape film you’ve ever seen, using little more than the face of Francois Leterrier and elemental off-screen sound.
Based on the memoir by Andre Devigny, who escaped from a German prison camp during World War II, and certainly influenced by Bresson’s own experiences as a prisoner of that war, A Man Escaped is a work of sublime simplicity. To use a word Bresson himself employs in an opening onscreen letter to the viewer: it’s “unadorned.”
Leterrier plays Fontaine, a French Resistance fighter we first meet in the back of a German military car. As the car slows and Fontaine leaps out the door, Bresson keeps the camera on his empty seat, leaving our ears straining for information. It’s an indication of the way he will orchestrate suspense throughout the film: relying less on sight than sound.
Taut where Bresson’s previous film, Diary of a Country Priest, was talky, A Man Escaped traces, in great detail, each step Fontaine takes to be free of the stone-walled prison where he is sent. Chiseling at his door with a spoon handle; creating a rope from strips of torn bedding – such acts are repeated with liturgical devotion. Fontaine is a monk immersed in his quest for freedom.
Of course religious analogies come to mind because this is Bresson, the token saint of cinema. And A Man Escaped does have its moments of obvious theology. Two of Fontaine’s fellow prisoners are men of the cloth, and they routinely invoke God’s saving mercy. (Fontaine’s opinion on the matter? God will save him “only if I give him a hand.”)
Another prisoner, Orsini (Jacques Ertaud), is praised as “courage incarnate,” a man who was betrayed to the Germans by his wife but “no longer knows hatred or suffering.” He too tries to escape, but his attempt serves only as a sacrifice – a trial run – for the climactic daring of Fontaine.
I mentioned Leterrier’s face at the start, and it is – like those of so many of Bresson’s figures – an inscrutable visage. Betraying little emotion, to his captors or us, Fontaine’s eyes are nevertheless fiercely alive. We know in that opening scene he’s going to jump from the car long before we see his hand twitch toward the door handle.
These are the things A Man Escaped is built upon: glances, gestures, solitary sounds. A guard’s keys habitually clinking against a stair railing represents approaching danger; the soft knocking of the prisoners on the walls of their cells rings like a gong of hope; the distant gunshots signaling yet another execution cast a shroud of desolation over the entire film.
Even in the echo of those shots, though, Fontaine persists. It’s his indomitable will that drives the picture. A Man Escaped is, in its simplicity, a very literal procedural, yet Bresson gives it a resonance that transcends mere genre. When Fontaine scurries off into the foggy street in the final shot, to the strains of Mozart’s Mass in C Minor, it’s not the practical escape of a prisoner we’re witnessing. It’s the flight of a soul.