A Man Escaped (1956) – The Many Uses of Sound in Film

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by Aditya Tandon

A Man Escaped, directed by Robert Bresson, is a film based on the remarkable escape of Andrew Devigny from the Fort Montluc prison in Lyons during the Nazi occupation of France during the Second World War. It tells the tale of Fontaine, a man from the French Resistance, his experiences in prison, the other inmates he meets, the escape plan he hatches, and a young boy named Jost who joins him in his final days.

Given the title of the film, there is obviously little suspense as to the outcome of Fontaine’s period at Fort Montluc, and yet, Bresson succeeds in keeping the audience fully invested during the 101 minutes duration of the film. Principally – although certainly not purely – he does this by giving enormous importance to the sounds in the film and the various purposes they serve, amplifying the volume to such a great degree during many parts that he is almost forcing us to pay extremely close attention to them.

In Bresson’s article, “Notes on Sound,” he sets out certain principles that he believes must inform the use of sound in films, many of which are present in A Man Escaped.

  • What is for the eye must not duplicate what is for the ear.
  • If the eye is entirely won, give nothing or almost nothing to the ear. One cannot be at the same time all eye and all ear.
  • When a sound can replace an image, cut the image or neutralize it. The ear goes more toward the within, the eye toward the outer. The ear goes more toward the within, the eye toward the outer.
  • The eye solicited alone makes the ear impatient, the ear solicited alone, makes the eye impatient. Against the tactics of speed, of noise, set tactics of slowness, of silence.

Certainly, given the content of the film itself, one would expect sound to play a significant role, with or without Bressen’s principles. Fontaine’s view of the world outside of his prison cell and a small portion of the outdoor area are largely governed by his perception of sound – he can only create some sort of map in his mind based on how keenly he pays attention to and makes sense of each individual, scattered, and small sound. Yet, rather than simply showing the audience Fontaine’s behaviors to this end, Bressen instead often uses sounds to include us in Fontaine’s realizations, seen in the manner in which the audience typically finds out about things in the film along with Fontaine or at times even after, amongst other occasions later described in this paper.

Possibly one of the most apparent uses of sound is the narration or voice-over/commentary that we hear throughout the film. This commentary typically serves to inform the audience of things that are not depicted or are not necessarily apparent on screen, as well as to lend them a view into Fontaine’s inner thoughts.  We especially see this regarding the passing of time; first, when Fontaine himself recounts that a week or a month has passed since he commenced work on his escape, even though there is no way for the audience to tell, as well as later during his escape when the audience knows an hour has passed each time a bells rings, even though Fontaine does not always point this out or visually react. Elsewhere, the narration often informs the audience of Fontaine’s temperament even when the visual images do not make this apparent, particularly present in a specific scene where his inner thoughts starkly diverge from his behavior – when he first approaches Jost in a friendly manner even though he strongly suspects and worries that Jost might be a spy. And, finally, the narration often simply serves to give the audience information that Bressen does not find necessary to depict, for example, when narration describes where some of the prison guards slept.

Another apparent and equally important use of sound in the film is the heightened or emphasized volumes of certain sounds. We directly see this in the jarringly loud scraping of the metal spoon against the ground and the wooden door, serving two key purposes. The first is simply to draw the audience’s attention to the spoon, perhaps to emphasize its importance or the challenging task that Fontaine is involved with. But the second, and perhaps more important use of this feature, was likely to allow the audience to experience the burden on Fontaine in constantly worrying whether the guards can hear him, and how the sound is further amplified even for him because of how closely he must pay attention to it. Even in the very first scene of the film, Bressen uses various intensities of similar sounds to give varying levels of importance to them. As Fontaine is being driven to the prison, the engine of the car he is in is almost inaudible, and yet, later in the scene, the engine of the streetcar is loud enough such that Fontaine attempts using it to distract from his escape. Such effects are often used throughout the film and serve to highlight the manner in which sound can play such a significant part in what we notice or give importance to, even if we are not consciously aware of it.

Finally, a third effect employed by Bressen is the use of recurring sounds to denote certain themes or sentiments. One such example that comes early in the film and is quite apparent is the sound of a bell and car engines that recur every time Fontaine speaks to the men outside his window assisting him, but never when he sits alone even though the window always remains open. This could simply be a means to set the scene, but it also serves to remind the audience of the close proximity of freedom to Fontaine’s cell, and perhaps is even suggestive of Fontaine’s thoughts and the freedom he so dearly seeks. Some of these recurring sounds are harder to catch, such as the train whistle we hear every time Fontaine leaves his cell to explore the prison, but they remain scattered throughout the film and often symbolize recurring moods or actions within different scenes.

It is through these methods, in addition to others that I have no doubt missed, that Bressen is able to create a film where the visual images must not take precedent, and the sound, the tenor, intensity, and tempo of it are all just as important to creating a full-encompassing scene. A Man Escapedwill certainly be a film that I will long remember, not only for its intriguing content and historical value, but certainly in large part because of Bressen’s dexterous use of sound and my newfound appreciation for the presence of it in films that has come from it.

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