‘A Man Escaped,’ Bresson’s pensive, otherworldly take on a prison break

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François Leterrier in Robert Bresson's A Man Escaped (1956). (Courtesy Film Forum/Janus Films. )
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Robert Bresson's A Man Escaped (showing at Film Forum through Jan. 26) is the ultimate spoiler. A man spends the movie planning to escape from a Nazi prison, and then he does.

The 1956 film, based on the memoirs of Resistance fighter Andre Devigny, is a quiet film, a noir turned on its head. The histrionics of the Hollywood escape film are replaced by the quietude of preparation. Fontaine fashions tools; after dismantling his cell door, he wanders the halls waiting for inspiration.

In Bresson's hands, this subject matter becomes incantatory, even trance-like. Instead of sinister shadows and deceitful crooks or looming guards, there's light, clarity, and community within the prison population. It's an idealistic film. How many prison-break films can say that? Not only did the story resonate with Bresson—himself a former P.O.W.—but it also allowed for an intersection of spirituality and realism, two of Bresson's primary concerns as a director.

Fontaine has to decide to be free, but has trouble making the choice. He hesitates even once he's set to be executed. Given the time and place of the film's creation, some wrestling with existentialism is practically unavoidable. But Bresson's own Catholicism tempers, even quiets, this generally harsh view of the human condition. The film's alternate title, the biblical The Wind Bloweth Where It Listeth, taken along with the recurring bits of Mozart's Great Mass in C Minor, suffuse the film with a warm, tremulous quality. The message becomes one not of the mortal struggle freedom from tyranny, but of redemption—a process that moves slowly, and is somehow beyond man's control.

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Fontaine is steadied, intent, and patient. His attitude contrasts sharply with that of his two accomplices, one more unwitting than the next. Desperate and unformed, their dramatic arcs are far more pitiable, human, and less comforting, in tone.

A Man Escaped isn't just a unique prison film, it's an alien one. Yet the details that go into Fontaine's planning and preparation are the meat of the film. They may be transfigured by the gossamer light of the human spirit, but this is very much a movie about making hooks and fashioning sturdy rope. It's a testament to Bresson's genius that A Man Escaped could so resemble a home improvement project at times, and yet come across as neither tedious nor technical.

If A Man Escaped feels otherworldly, this atmosphere, and the film's message, are always a function of very concrete tasks. Angels, not devils, are in these details; the worldly, and a sensitivity to it, prove key to realizing any kind of spiritual deliverance. Maybe it undersells its climax, and the sense of mounting intensity, but escape is a job. No one ever got free on nerves alone.

'A Man Escaped' plays today through Thursday, January 26 at Film Forum.