A Man Escaped

A Man Escaped ★★★★½

A Man Escaped is adapted from a true story about a French Resistance fighter who escaped from a gestapo jail in 1943. Robert Bresson declares upfront that he is presenting the story without embellishment, but that is evidently untrue. His use of Mozart’s Great Mass in C minor immediately hints at a spiritual concern that transcends the story’s focus on the physical act of escape.  

I've heard Bresson's approach to filmmaking being compared to that of a great pianist, as distinct from a technically brilliant one. A great pianist will withhold emotional display in order to bring out the emotion. And this is what I think he really means when he says A Man Escaped is presented without embellishment. It is a film in which he strips back the affectations of acting and everything else that is superficial, to arrive at a highly concentrated reduction.  Everything is centred on the single-minded devotion to a state of resistance as expressed through the desire to escape. 

The intense concentration of this devotion makes it a spiritual one. The devotion has a sense of exaltation about it: a higher purpose that suggests the escape is not just by the body, but also of the soul. The apparent impossibility of the escape makes its eventual realisation an act of miracle; and Mozart’s music is like the hand of God or at least the power of belief guiding the man to freedom.

Along the way the film is also a study in trust and friendship, and through this Bresson achieves his goal of finding emotion from the barest of gestures. The prisoners are forced into whispered or secreted communication, unable to fully converse and therefore forced to put their faith blindly in one another, at the risk of betrayal. The possibility of a Judas lurking in their midst is a tension almost too much to bear given the stakes, but what transcends that fear is a need to help one another, combined with a very human need to be seen and be heard. It’s this latter need that keeps the film's spiritual concerns firmly tethered to the physical. A Man Escaped portrays hope as measured in humanity and faith as measured in spirit. The man’s fellow prisoners are prepared to sacrifice themselves for him because he has the faith to exalt to freedom. There are religious parallels to draw here, but there is also something corporeal about the essence of friendship that underpins everything. 

With so much concentration of focus and so little opportunity for dialogue, every sound takes on enormous consequence. Every scrape, every cough, is like a grenade. This film is a demonstration of why silent films were superseded. Not for the dialogue the talkies enabled but for the language of sound itself. Sound is where Bresson embellishes. It is where Mozart becomes the spirit and every scrape and shuffle and train rumbling past becomes the physical reality. Where the acting and dialogue and mise en scene are stripped right back, the sound is left to fill the spaces, drilling straight to the emotional essence of the story. 

The final escape never seems certain despite the film’s title and despite the hand of Mozart periodically returning to cut through the unbearable tension. But then the miracle happens and this ultimate salvation is achieved through a final fade to black. Bresson ends by completely repudiating the image, stripping bare every embellishment except for the last strands of Mozart. And with the music we are left with an elevated sense of spiritual release and with it one of the purest distillations of emotion in all of cinema.

Having sung the praises of this remarkable film, I have one small gripe. I was surprised by the extent of voiceover narration. A Man Escaped is gripping but it would have been even more tense without the man's running commentary, particularly during the film’s first half. I am not anti-voiceover as a general rule, but on this occasion I wish I could have turned it off. I would love to see a cut of this film that avoids that particular embellishment and gets us even closer to Bresson’s stated ideal. The film is plenty strong enough to stand on its sound and music and whispered conversations alone. 

Favourite Films | Best Films of the 1950s | Best Music (Scores and Soundtracks) | Robert Bresson Ranked

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