This precision-made minimalist drama by French director Robert Bresson details the preparations a prisoner makes to escape from captivity. Cinema is an excellent medium for showing in a photojournalistic manner how things are done, although it’s rarely used for this purpose, especially given the contemporary obsession with characters and story.
But although the mechanics of the escape make up the totality of the film, it’s formed in a way that reflects the Christian faith of its protagonist. A Man Escaped (1956) refined the filmmaking styles and themes Bresson had experimented with in Diary of a Country Priest (1951), styles that would come to fruition in his classic Pickpocket (1959).
The film is based on the memoir A Man Condemned to Death has Escaped (1959) by André Devigny, a member of the French Resistance who escaped from a Nazi prison. It also reflects Bresson’s own experience of being imprisoned by the Nazis. It starts with Fontaine (François Leterrier), a member of the Resistance who’s been arrested for blowing up a bridge, trying to escape from the car that’s taking him to prison.
While incarcerated, Fontaine finds out he can remove his handcuffs with a safety pin. He then meticulously plans an escape by removing boards from a wooden door with a sharpened spoon and making climbing hooks out of a light fitting. The film shows his preparations, his interaction with fellow inmates via whispers and notes, his attempts to find a prisoner to break out with, and the escape attempt itself.
A Man Escaped is as cinematically pure as non-silent cinema can be. Bresson’s main focus is on editing, mise-en-scène, and framing – the actors and their performances are simply a part of this grand scheme rather than the focus of it.
Bresson felt that professional acting techniques brought an undesirable sense of artifice to their film performances. To avoid this, he not only used non-professional actors, he worked with them to strip away any performance techniques they may have acquired. This resulted in unusually naturalistic performances from the whole cast.
Bresson was a self-confessed religious filmmaker, in the sense that he felt that God directed all human action. He intended the film to reflect this religious approach without explicitly referencing faith: “I do not believe that everything in a film is put there. You include some things without including them,” Bresson told the newspaper L’Express.
“In A Man Escaped, I tried to make the audience feel these extraordinary currents which existed in the German prisons during the Resistance, the presence of something or someone unseen; a hand that directs all.”
A Man Escaped will be screened on June 3 and July 2 at the Hong Kong Arts Centre, Wan Chai, as part of the Cine Fan programme.