Based on the true account of a French Catholic resistance fighter’s arduous efforts to escape from a Nazi internment camp, Robert Bresson’s masterpiece A Man Escaped (literally, A Man Condemned to Death Has Escaped) gives away less in its title than it seems to.
As he did in his prior Diary of a Country Priest, Bresson faithfully adapts his source material, but he also appends a subtitle to A Man Escaped — The Wind Blows Where it Wills, an allusion to Jesus’ discourse in John 3 about being born of water and the Spirit — and rechristens the protagonist (whose real name was André Devigny, and is played by François Leterrier) “Fontaine,” fountain. Clearly, like Diary, A Man Escaped is intended as a reflection on spiritual bondage, rebirth, and the mysteries of grace and providence, as much as about stone walls and iron bars.
Yet in marked contrast to another famous French parable of inner and outward bondage and freedom — “The Myth of Sisyphus” by Bresson’s contemporary and friend, existentialist philospher Albert Camus — A Man Escaped is not content simply with the struggle toward the goal in itself. Fontaine must really escape, not merely make the attempt. Yet so objective and unsparing is Bresson’s direction that how the story actually ends remains uncertain until the very last shot. With his final frame, Bresson completes his sublime rebuttal of Camus’ contention that “the struggle itself” is enough to “fill a man’s heart,” even if the quest is futile.
A Man Escaped offers newcomers to Bresson perhaps the most accessible point of entry into the work of this brilliant, challenging, God-haunted artist. It’s also the film in which Bresson’s mature style fully crystalized, and provided the filmmaker with perhaps the ideal subject for his singular stylistic preferences.
Among Bresson’s hallmarks is the juxtaposition of onscreen images with sounds from unseen, offscreen sources — a device that seems uniquely suited to the world of a narrow prison cell, where Fontaine has both a limited range of vision, and ample reason to attend to every boot scrape and unknown creak. And Bresson’s insistence on eliciting bare performances stripped of all emotion from novice actors may better suit a prisoner reduced to a singular purpose, his will wholly bent to his course of action, than any other protagonist in his body of work.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.