French with English Subtitles
Starring:François Leterrier, Charles Le Clainche and Maurice Beerblock
Written by: Robert Bresson
Based on a Memoir by: André Devigny
Directed by: Robert Bresson
Rated: Not Rated
Running Time: 1hr 41mins
WINNER – Cannes Film Festival – Best Director (Robert Bresson)
NOMINEE – Cannes Film Festival – Palm d’Or (Robert Bresson)
NOMINEE – BAFTA Awards – Best Film From Any Source
As I write this, A MAN ESCAPES, maintains a perfect 100% Fresh critics score on Rotten Tomatoes based on 40 critics and a 93% fresh audience score based on over 5000 reviews — Rotten Tomatoes
Robert Bresson insisted on complete authenticity. Original author André Devigny served as adviser on the film, which was actually shot in the same Montluc prison where he was incarcerated. André Devigny also loaned Robert Bresson the ropes and hooks he had used in his escape. IMDB
Director Robert Bresson is a filmmaker that I was unfamiliar with until about a week ago. While watching a Youtube video of Academy Award-winning actress Cate Blanchett (BLUE JASMINE) and director Todd Field (TAR) inside the Criterion Closet, looking at shelves of BluRays, I witnessed the actress briefly talk about a movie I had never heard of. She called it “a really really excellent film” and made me want to seek it out. Then, after watching the film, I realized that it had to be the next underexposed recommendation. That movie is A MAN ESCAPED – a minimalistic film in every regard and a story that should have probably failed. Very little happens and it’s told mostly in narration (something I normally don’t like). It’s Bresson’s talent as a director, though, that effectively pulls it all together, giving viewers a fascinating exploration of a man’s need to maintain a certain amount of hope while planning an escape from the prison cell he occupies. Bresson refuses to fall into the trap by making it a big movie with Hollywood-style excitement and keeps everything true to reality, drawing us in even more by telling a story that feels 100% genuine.
Based on a memoir by French Lieutenant André Devigny, A MAN ESCAPES takes place during World War II and tells the story of Fontaine, an army Lieutenant who, after being captured, is delivered to a Nazi prison camp where he must await his inevitable execution. He is a man who believes in holding onto hope. He tells his neighbor who has given up and finds the idea of escape pointless: he does it “To fight the walls, to fight myself, to fight the door. You should fight to hope… To go home, to be free.” The movie sets up the situation by opening on a placard that reads: “At this site under German occupation, 10,000 men suffered, victims of the Nazis. 7,000 passed away.” Fontaine is determined not to be one of the 7000 and his escape is the only story Bresson is interested in telling. There are a few subplots, but they are minor as the script chooses to stay with the difficult preparation of Fontaine’s escape and anything else is only there to enhance that.
As both Writer and director, Bresson chose an interesting technique to tell the story as he leans heavily on the voice-over narration. In most movies, the narration is utilized to enhance the visuals and dialogue, giving audiences information that the filmmakers fear the viewer won’t get. Sometimes it’s needed, but much of the time it’s not. Here the narration is the key to the film’s success. It’s what moves the story forward as we are taken step by step through Fontaine’s difficult process of designing his escape. It’s the visuals and dialogue that actually enhance most of what is being told in the narration. This technique works well to make the viewing experience feel like we are not watching a movie as much as listening to a man tell his personal story of survival.
Bresson also chooses to make the filmmaking techniques as simple as possible. No sweeping shots of the prison yard and the camera never dollies into Fontaine’s face to manipulate the viewer’s emotions. The camera is there as a spectator only. We are just silent observers in every sense of the word. This adds to the fascination we as an audience have towards what is going on. Everything feels both real and honest. Whether Fontaine will succeed or not is never in question. The title of the film, A MAN ESCAPED, blatantly spoils it. Everything works though because the script by Bresson isn’t about the outcome; it’s about the journey. We never cut away to the war to inform us about what is happening during the Nazi occupation. This isn’t what’s important. We relate to Fontaine because we only see what he sees. When a prisoner is executed by a firing squad, it is done off-screen. Like Fontaine, we only hear the gunshots. Bresson has one small story to tell and he tells it well. It’s the decision to keep the story tight and focused which allows the audience to never get bored. The main focus lies on the small details of how Fontaine will get through the prison cell door and then what happens next. We linger on a lot of close-ups as his hands do their work: Stripping away at the door, fashioning ropes from sheets, etc… Obstacles do eventually get in his way, including a man who is brought in as an eventual cellmate forcing Fontaine to decide whether or not to trust and include him in the escape.
Bresson also made the interesting decision to use non-actors to fill the roles. François Leterrier, the man chosen to portray Fontaine, has an acting portfolio consisting of only two films and A MAN ESCAPED was the first. Let’s face it, casting a movie star may have forced the film to become much bigger than Bresson wanted it to be and Leterrier ultimately adds a real everyman quality to the main character and the film benefits because of it.
Before renting A MAN ESCAPED, I was completely unaware of who this filmmaker was. His career may have lasted 39 years, but over that time, he only made 14 films. His ability to take a simple story and create such a fascinating exercise in minimalistic filmmaking left me in awe. Now I can’t wait to make my way through his filmmaking library in hopes of finding more gems to enjoy and maybe even recommend.
Watch A MAN ESCAPED
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