There is no such thing as pure cinema, some unadulterated, undeniable form of filmmaking that sticks truest to the medium’s undefined roots. Whether it be silent films or talkies, or arthouse films or big-budget commercial films, every film deserves valid recognition as a member to the large pantheon we know as cinema. That being said, I do believe that some films more reach the full expressive potential of the medium than others. Filmmakers like Andrei Tarkovsky and Ingmar Bergman have consistently demonstrated their understanding of film as something beyond just visual storytelling. Film is a deeply visceral mosaic of time, crafted by sound and images, that fully embodies and expresses an emotion or concept. Robert Bresson was amongst the finest to ever accomplish this perfect fusion of concept with craft.
Nobody makes films like Robert Bresson. His stories are told completely unadorned and reduced to its very essence. Everything is presented as clearly as it should, there are no movie stars, no special effects and absolutely no contrived thrills. To put it simply, he has removed all of the distractions that we commonly associate with entertaining cinema. Instead of constantly having to spike your interest, he likes to hold you in a hypnotic grip where the raw truth of every frame should sufficiently entice you.
This is most true in what is arguably his crowning achievement, 1956’s A Man Escaped. Like many of Bresson’s other films, this is a film concerning people confronting immense despair. In 1943, Captured Resistance fighter Fontaine is carted off to Montluc, a Nazi prison camp in Lyon, where he will be executed. Beginning from the film’s very first scenes, Fontaine is devising an escape. His first attempt is running away from the unlocked car carrying him to his doom, only to be recaptured and severely beaten. The rest of the film details the rest of his second attempt, a far more intricate plan involving the patient disassembling of a prison door and tightropes made out of hooks and bedsheets. The film is not about whether or not Fontaine will succeed, the title of the film readily spoils that for us, but how he endures.
The airtight nature of the film’s story perfectly mixes with Bresson’s disciplined approach to filmmaking. It only helps that Bresson himself was captured by the Nazis for supposedly participating in the Resistance. The nature of war is, after all, limited to the sensory details of a soldier’s given environment. In Fontaine’s case, it is the confinement of his prison cell. Viewing the entire story through Fontaine’s perspective, we gain an extremely intimate understanding of his cell. Bresson’s simple vocabulary of long, medium, close and insert shots and calm, timely editing matches Fontaine’s close scrutiny of important details. However, what I think is most impressive of Bresson’s craft is his brilliant use of sound design. His mix of voice over, music and non-diegetic sound is carefully considered, so that each element plays out exactly how it needs to. As much as A Man Escaped is dedicated to what is being shown, it is also inadvertently about what is not being shown, which relates back to war’s limited physical view. Bresson uses sound and music sparingly to enforce the deprived state of Fontaine’s environment. The film’s soundscapes can be so barren that each sound, no matter how painfully small, becomes inordinately important. A distant click could signal mortal danger or blissful hope. As these sounds manifest and mutate in Fontaine’s mind, they do in ours as well, effortlessly keeping us entranced.
Based off this review, A Man Escaped may come off as a driveling bore, where nothing really happens. Is this true? Well, there are few films I find more captivating. More importantly, A Man Escaped feels like a lesson in cinema. The film shows us what is purely necessary and what is not, completely recalibrating our sense of what cinema is. Everything we’ve ever been accustomed to in cinema has become superfluous. A Man Escaped is a rare film I can appreciate for what it is, what it is not and what it has taught me. It is in the sheer rawness and transparency of each shot, and the subtle shifts in facial expressions and ambient noises that Bresson has uncovered the truths of life. A+