by Ben Ratchford
It is often said of Bresson that his films, through their mechanical nature, their minimalist approach to their presentation of human emotion and experience, portray more passion and depth than could be achieved by “showier” directors. Bresson expresses this as one of his goals in filmmaking in an interview from 1973.
We have here an opposing view to Bazin’s idea of “total cinema” that cinema ought to re-produce as faithfully as possible the physical experience of real life – Bresson’s “cinematic life,” which is unique to cinema as an art, form seeks something new and otherworldly rather than trying to replicate lived experiences. I will here examine the techniques used on and off screen by Bresson in A Man Escaped to manifest his vision of cinematic life, that we may begin to understand what he means by such a statement. This is by no means an attempt to synthesize a complete definition of Bresson’s cinematic life, but rather a case study of a single film in what is at its heart a much larger project. Ultimately, I argue that through a minimalist construction of the emotional landscape in A Man Escaped, Bresson is able to slowly build emotional investment in Fontaine’s character, finally transcending the real at its end, achieving a level of depth which “places the world in the light of eternity” as Hayman put it in that same 1973 interview.
I want to first discuss the reasons why A Man Escaped feels realistic, and will then talk about how it surpasses this realism to become its own sort of life. At the heart of this question is Bresson’s unique directing style, notoriously “against acting” as it has been put – he told his actors as little as possible about the story before shooting, asking them instead to speak their lines and perform their actions as mechanically as possible, “as though they were speaking to themselves.”
We see this at play at the beginning of the movie – right after Fontaine (François Leterrier) is thrown into his cell, he lays down and we hear him say, “My courage abandoned me for a moment and I cried.” However, on-screen his face is completely flat. The line, too, is delivered with absolute dejectedness. I’ve included the scene below.
Here, the disconnect between visual and auditory information does not detract from the scene, but rather the “emotional space” left open by Leterrier’s performance allows audience to fill in the gaps themselves, which, counterintuitively, lends the film more emotional depth, not less. His voice reads not as bored, but as reflective of his fatalistic attitude. His lack of action on screen reads not as lazy acting, but as Fontaine being too exhausted to emote for the camera. It feels truly like a man who knows he is alone in a hostile world acting for no one but himself.
This trend is carried throughout the film, where even in the most strenuous situations Fontaine’s expression scarcely deviates from its typical inscrutability (see Figure 1).
To some, Leterrier’s performance might read as emotionally sparse, or even poorly acted, but to me these moments characterize Fontaine as cool, levelheaded, indefatigable. A man in full control of his emotions, someone who is committed to his goals and cannot be shaken by even the most harrowing conditions, rather than an emotionless robot. This is supported by other emotional characters, rare moments of emotion from Fontaine himself, (For example, when he builds a relationship with his neighbors, when he expresses fear upon meeting Jost, his obvious love for his country, or when he laughs nervously after returning to his cell from his sentencing. Still, his expression never changes.) and his regular acts of brilliance and resilience that make up the body of the film. As expressed before, the narration also helps work to this end – we know that Fontaine is experiencing a very intense emotional journey, (something I will elaborate on further down below) but is forced to steel himself against the storm. Courage is the word we hear perhaps the most often over the course of the film – by Fontaine to himself, in a note from the women, and perhaps most memorably in reference to Orsini as “courage incarnate” – and certainly the relevance of this motif in relation to Fontaine’s actions is not lost in translation.
There is a quote from the same interview which I presented at the opening in which Bresson says “You must feed the ear and the eye together if you can because the ear gives something to the eye. When you hear the whistle of the train it gives you the idea of the whole station. The ear is inventive.” This is to say that much can be implied with very little information, and I think this attitude that Bresson takes towards sound, an element of this film which is so crucial in constructing its physical and emotional landscape, perfectly explains why the acting in this movie works as well as it does (the use of sound in this film has been very well explained by others before me, so I won’t recapitulate the arguments here except to say that it is used very sparingly and precisely to establish the space of the film).
The other effect of Leterrier’s acting in this context is that the prison feels exceedingly oppressive, and Fontaine’s escape mission seems to be of the utmost urgency. It is not that he does not feel, he simply has no time to emote – he is already pushed up against his own execution as things are, and each day that passes is already a risk when he is at all times engaged in crimes punishable by death. We hear other prisoners being killed around him throughout the movie, and even from the beginning he accepts that death is an option if he does not act carefully and quickly. There is no time to waste. Emotion of almost any kind, be it early celebration, paralyzing fear, anything less than full commitment to his escape, could prove disastrous.
This reading of Fontaine is enforced thoroughly through the film’s intense focus on manual labor, certainly its most defining visual characteristic. In the first hour of the film, over half of the screen time is spent on Fontaine’s hands – in many shots his face is not even shown at all, opting instead to give the audience something akin to Fontaine’s perspective. They do a number of things in this time: reaching for the door to escape in the first scene, sharpening his spoon, chiseling at the door, unraveling his bed to make rope, ripping up his blanket, braiding shirts into ropes, bending metal frames into hooks, and more (Figure 2).
Bresson’s intense focus on manual labor in this film is something that we will return to, but in the characterization of Fontaine it serves to strengthen the notion that he is an assiduous worker, and further increases the gravity of his plight.
These shots make up a part of what is the crucial element of the film’s emotional continuity, which is the strict adherence to (and careful portrayal of) Fontaine’s perspective. Throughout the entire film we see only what Fontaine sees; sometimes less, but never more. This is not done in a literal sense – we are at almost no point given a first person perspective of Fontaine’s view – but in the sense that the information the viewer is given is always reflective of what Fontaine’s attention is drawn to, and gives us an idea of his internality. This effect is shown quite clearly in the scene where Fontaine learns how to make hooks from Orsini. What Bresson shows us is just as important as what he does not show us – both tell us relevant information about how Fontaine sees the world around him.
My favorite example of this is the scene in which Jost is brought into Fontaine’s cell.
Here Jost is not shown to us as he enters the cell, even though he is clearly the focus of Fontaine’s attention, and the most important element of the plot by far at this point. Even though we can’t see him, Jost is the most important thing on the screen, despite not actually appearing on screen. Bresson’s decision to keep Jost out of sight as he enters the cell reflects not what Fontaine sees, but what he feels. Jost is a mystery, perhaps dangerous and perhaps not, but at this point there is no way to know – visually, this is exactly what we are shown. By drawing out the tension and not revealing Jost right away, Bresson communicates Fontaine’s feelings to us without ever having to tell us directly what is going on in his head. Again, the audience fills in the gaps all on their own.
Thus, throughout the film the perspective shown to the audience mirrors Fontaine’s internality as much as it does his externality, of which we actually see rather little, given the scale of time over which the movie takes place. This is where we come to understand how Bresson’s cinematic life differs from real life. He is not attempting to show the audience something which parallels each element of living exactly, but rather which mirrors the emotional landscape of life’s journeys. All of the drama, the flair, the monologuing that we come to expect when we go to see shows at the theatre, on TV, or in very highly produced modern films, has been pared down to its most essential parts, until what’s left is not a story that we physically feel is real, for indeed a true “total cinema” experience in this sense would require such a holistic approach, but rather a story that we connect with emotionally. This lack of superficiality, in the design of the set, in the editing and shooting of the film, and in the direction of the actors, is felt as something metaphysical, otherworldly. This is what is meant when Bresson’s work is described as being ascetic or “placing the world in the light of eternity,” because of his unique way of striking the emotional core of the story. The characters feel at a point not as people in the real world, but as parts of some perfectly orchestrated larger machine with an unknowable purpose, as though it might appear in the mind when being remembered.
In A Man Escaped, this is made no more clear than in the final 20 minutes of the film, the escape scene itself. In place of what might have been a heart-pounding action sequence in any other film, Bresson’s escape is an excruciating crawl through the darkness, a primarily silent endeavour punctuated by the wail of the train where the crunching of gravel means the difference between life and death. In the night time and open air, the sounds of the world carry much further and more clearly than they do inside of the cell, and the starkness of the film is brought fully into the light. No more is the story one of a man suffering and laboring tirelessly within an oppressive system, but now that all of the preparations had been made, all that stands between Fontaine and freedom is a single guard. “This man had to die,” says Fontaine. There is no doubt or fear any longer, but the crushing force of fate coming in the form of Fontaine to end a life. It is here that we are reminded of the title, A Man Escaped – we knew that all was set from the beginning. Fontaine is to escape, and this man is to die. A decree from eternity. And so Fontaine, calm as ever, lays down his meticulously crafted hook and rushes into the darkness to kill, off screen. The struggle is not important because we already know what happens, what had to happen, what was always going to happen.
This graduation from emotionally realistic on-screen action to the super-realistic is gradual, if indeed one can even meaningfully distinguish between the two, but important – without the emotional continuity and setup of the first half, aided by the fact that the movie depicts a true story, was filmed in the place where it happened, and used real objects as models for prop creation, the second half could not carry the weight that it does. It is this slow and steady increase in depth which allows Bresson to reach the “cinematic life” which surpasses the real in A Man Escaped.
Bazin, Andre. ‘The Myth of Total Cinema’, in Andre Bazin, Hugh Gray (trans), What Is Cinema?, Vol. 1, London: University of California Press Ltd, (1967)
Bresson, Robert, and RONALD HAYMAN. “Robert Bresson: In Conversation with RONALD HAYMAN.” The Transatlantic Review, no. 46/47, 1973, pp. 16–23. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/41513325.
Burnett, Colin. The Invention of Robert Bresson : The Auteur and His Market. Indiana University Press, 2017.
Ebert, R. (1999, December 23). Robert Bresson was master of understatement: Interviews: Roger Ebert. Retrieved from https://www.rogerebert.com/interviews/robert-bresson-was-master-of-understatement.
Foster, G. A. (2014, June 4). A Man Escaped. Retrieved from http://sensesofcinema.com/2012/cteq/a-man-escaped/.
Hagopian, K. (n.d.). Film Notes – A Man Escaped. Retrieved from https://www.albany.edu/writers-inst/webpages4/filmnotes/fnf04n9.html.
Karp, M. (2009, May 14). Cinema and “Reality”: The Importance of Emotional Truth. Retrieved from https://www.studentfilmmakers.com/news/051409_cinemaandreality.shtml.