Thursday, 21 July 2011

A Man Escaped (1956) - Robert Bresson

I love prison films. From the lofty greats such as Stalag 17, Shawshank, Cool Hand Luke, One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, Scum and The Great Escape all the way down to (cough cough) The Rock, most seem to do the trick for me. My two absolute favourites both hail from France, Jacques Becker's Le trou and Robert Bresson's Un condamné à mort s'est échappé ou Le vent souffle où il veut, or A Man Escaped to you and me.

A Man Escaped is based on the true story of André Devigny, who Bresson managed to have on hand as an adviser to make his film as authentic as possible. Devigny (renamed Fontaine in the film) was a part of the French Resistance, and after being caught was sentenced to death and sent to Fort Montluc prison in Lyon. The title really gives away what happened next so I won't patronise you by going into that. It's the prison section of the above that is the focus of this film. 

Bresson does his thing of using non professionals and teasing stunning performances from them. François Leterrier as Fontaine (making his screen debut) is in every single scene of the film, and gives one of the greatest performances you'll ever have the pleasure to witness, yet he only ever acted in one other film after this. Which of course just goes to show that Bresson knew what he wanted from his actors, and probably didn't need any trained luvvie trying to stick their oar into his vision.

It's hard to believe that this was only Bresson's fourth film, since it's just so perfect. I can't think of one thing that is wrong or bothers me at all. It's starts with Fontaine on his way to prison and ends when he escapes. Perfect, concise and niftily paced, without ever feeling rushed. It's by far and away the best Bresson film for me (closely followed by Mouchette), but then I still haven't managed to see everything that he's directed yet, so that could all change. I'm a sucker for his stark black and white photography, it's not at all noir like. There aren't any huge hulking shadows of prison bars on the walls or anything like that. What it does have however is a myriad of life worn faces that tell a story just by the way they look, very much like Dreyer in a way.

European films set during WWII are all a bit different depending on which country is making them, for the obvious reason that each country has a different tale to tell, having experienced the war from differing angles. I like the French films that I've seen set in this period mainly because they have a hopeful message, usually centered around never giving up, never giving in and the thought that France will rise again despite the fact that she fell so easily. I'm thinking of Clouzot's Le Corbeau, or Melville's Army of Shadows, both of which tell tales that are poles apart but have the same central themes as A Man Escaped.

The thing about A Man Escaped is that it has very little in common with other prison films. For a start there are none of the expected cliches that turn up again and again in other films of this genre. So no gangs of people squaring off against each other in the yard, in fact no yard at all for that matter, no evil sadistic warden, no bum rape, no scenes of men bonding over the awful slop that passes for food, no old guy that has a mouse for a companion, no jobs in the library, nothing like that at all. Instead what you get with A Man Escaped feels real and almost documentary like at times, with Bresson displaying the same passion for meticulously showing in detail how things happen, as Jean-Pierre Melville. There is very little actual chat in the film, the prisoners communicate mainly via folded slips of paper. The German guards constantly bark at them that there is to be 'No Talking'. Having said that though there is reams of internal dialogue/voice over which seems to be lifted directly from the pages of the book.

There are only two main sets, Fontaine's cell and the washroom, and then as I said no real dialogue, all acts of violence happen off screen (behind doors, or around corners) and you know how the film is going to end. Yet despite all of the above Bresson manages to create enough tension to keep even the most rabid Hitchcock fan sitting on the edge of their sofa. Critics always wax lyrical about Bresson, and you know what? They should. His films are beautiful, evocative, emotional and not at all as pretentious as people might fear. A Man Escaped is spartan, simple and effective to the point that you'd never notice. If this film was an album it would be Nick Drake's Pink Moon. You have to see this.

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