In one of the documentaries included as bonus material in the Criterion Collection’s two-DVD set of Robert Bresson’s signature film, the 1956 A Man Escaped, its star François Leterrier makes the point that Bresson wouldn’t have been happy about presenting a film of his on DVD. Bresson compared the art of the filmmaker to that of the painter. Images are created in the context of the totality of the canvas. Bresson, from all indications was a perfectionist when it came to the realization of his vision. He knew what he wanted from his actors, from his soundscape, from his visual images, and he would shoot and reshoot until he got what he wanted. A DVD reproduction of a film would be akin to a photographic reproduction of a painting—a pale imitation of the original. To fully comprehend a Bresson film, he would argue, it would needs be seen on a big screen, the canvas for which it was created.
Mindful of that caveat, and given the fact that Bresson’s films are not all that readily available on the big screen, one has to wonder whether a pale imitation isn’t better than nothing. A Man Escaped is a film that deserves to be seen, and it is to the Criterion Collection’s credit that this set makes it widely available.
Set in Lyons in 1943, it tells the story of Fontaine a member of the French Resistance imprisoned and sentenced to death as he methodically goes about planning and carrying out a daring escape. While Bresson focuses dramatic attention on the process, it is clear that the real importance of the escape is in the human need to fight on against all odds: “Say not to the struggle naught availeth.”It is the struggle that makes the man. From the very beginning as Fontaine is being transported to the prison in the back seat of an automobile, escape is the one thing on his mind. He is contrasted with the prisoner who sits docile besides him. Later he is contrasted with an older prisoner in the adjoining cell who has given up, until Fontaine’s single mindedness lights a spark even in him. The detailed depiction of his careful preparations always with the threat of discovery in the background combined with his indomitable struggle for freedom against tyranny is a testament to the human will.
From the point of view of film theory, the film is important for its application of some of Bresson’s more innovative ideas about cinema. Perhaps most famously, he believed that sound was in some respects a more important factor in film than the visual image. Sound, he felt, used properly led the audience to imaginative visualization. Fontaine looking out through the bars in his cell window hears gun shots. He can only imagine what they mean. We hear the same shots and we have to imagine as well. Our imaginations are not limited by what we see. Tapping on cell walls, scraping a spoon, water dripping—sounds become the entry into the world of the prison. And while most of what we see and hear is limited to what Fontaine experiences in his claustrophobic cell, there are also the sounds of the outside world—street cars, trains—as well. We, like Fontaine, can only imagine the world beyond the prison.
Visually, Bresson also likes to get audience members using their imaginations. Fontaine disappears around a corner during the actual escape. We never see what follows, but we can imagine, creating the “missing” scene for ourselves.
He shows us parts and lets us work from them. We see Fontaine’s hands as he reaches tentatively for the car door handle as he looks for an opportunity to run off when the film begins. He runs off and is returned to the car. We are not shown how he is chased and caught. We see a woman walking in the prison courtyard; we hear shots. She turns and starts to walk back in the opposite direction. Sound, image: Bresson makes his audience an active participant in the creative process.
He never liked to use professional actors. Leterrier had never acted before he was given the lead in the film. Bresson objected to actors reciting lines. He didn’t want them playing parts. He didn’t want cinema to be filmed theater. He was looking for something closer to life. Actors were not given direction, they were simply asked to do scenes over and over again until Bresson was satisfied. Flat readings, in a sense, are another way of leaving things to the audience, in this case the interpretation of the emotional reality. The actor doesn’t do it for you, so you do it yourself. It is still another indication of the director’s faith in the creative sensibility of the audience.
As usual with films in the Criterion Collection, there is a wealth of excellent bonus material. Besides the actual film in a new restoration with new English subtitles, Disc One also includes the trailer. Disc Two has a fund of documentary material: a 1965 episode of a French TV program with a lengthy interview with Bresson; The Road to Bresson, a 1984 documentary featuring interviews with filmmakers like Louis Malle and Paul Schrader; The Essence of Forms, a 2010 film which focuses on people who worked with the director including Leterrier, and Functions of Film Sound, a scholarly examination of the use of sound in the film. Of course there is the ubiquitous Criterion booklet, this an essay by film historian Tony Pipolo.