Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Robert Bresson | Un condamné à mort s’est échappé ou Le vent soufflé où il veut (A Man Escaped or: The Wind Blows Where It Likes)

if only my mother could see me now

Robert Bresson (writer and director, based on the memoirs of André Devigny) Un condamné à mort s’est échappé ou Le vent soufflé où il veut (A Man Escaped or: The Wind Blows Where It Likes) / 1956, USA 1957

If there was ever evidence that Bresson’s films are unlike anyone else’s, one need only watch his A Man Escaped. On the surface this is one of hundreds of a genre of prison escape movies and part of a smaller genre of “escape from the Nazis” films. Generally these pictures center their interest not only in the methods of the escape but on the incredible adventures surrounding their heroes’ larger-than-life accomplishments, displaying loud scores and casts of dozens, while focusing on the startling exploits of those who achieve the impossible.
    Bresson’s black and white film certainly has some of these elements, but everything is played so absolutely straightforwardly that he almost (purposely) loses the elements of adventure; he uses music from Mozart’s Great Mass in C minor, and his central actors, instead of being known actors, are, as in most of Bresson’s works, unknowns, first-time actors chosen from the society around. In this case the protagonist, Lieutenant Fontaine, is played by a doe-eyed French student (François Leterrier). We know from the very first image of this film, wherein the director focuses—as he does in so many of his works—on a prisoner’s nervous hands as he is being taken away with other prisoners in a car. At each slowdown or possible street impediment, Fontaine’s left hand quietly reaches for the door handle (he has evidently been able to free himself from handcuffs), but after several reaches it appears he has lost his nerve—until the car nears a tram when the young Fontaine suddenly springs from the moving auto. A car following behind, quickly recaptures him and he is returned to the prisoner’s vehicle. Soon after, in retaliation, he is severely beaten, blood flowing from several facial wounds across his white shirt, an article of clothing he is forced to wear throughout the rest of the film, appearing as a kind Christ-like figure, flayed and whipped by his tormentors.
       Filmed in the original Fort Montluc prison in Lyon where Devigny, the real-life figure behind this film, was imprisoned, Bresson’s cinematic immersion in details is far more in evidence than any dramatic story-telling; but that very focus on Fontaine’s knocks against the walls, the heft of his lithe body to the high-ceilinged window, his intense attention to the cell door, and, later, the careful fashioning of metal and cloth ropes and hooks, in Bresson’s concentration on the utterly material manifestations, creates perhaps more tension and sense of adventure than were he to fully invoke, as in a film like Stalag 17, for example, the detailed stratagems of the actual escape. Here everything is done in secret even as we witness events, which blend in with the daily activities such as the morning ritual of bathing and emptying slop pails between whispers and slips of paper messages in and out of pockets. Despite the constantly prying eyes and the commands for silence of the Nazis, these men somehow manage to piece together information of each other’s plans and the conditions of their lives. Similarly, the audience must link up, at times, the smallest of gestures to be able to comprehend the actions of both the hero and others. Why are Terry and two other men permitted to walk alone in the open as they are in the early scenes? Why is the elderly man in the room next door so unresponsive? Why is Orsini so determined to achieve his early escape? Why are others so determined to stay where they are? Everything is inexplicable, and in a world where men are being murdered every day (an opening note tells us more than 7,000 were put to death in this prison) everyone is possibly a spy or, at least, someone determined to prevent the punishment all must endure if one of them were actually to “breach the wall.”
      Once Fontaine perceives that the cracks between the heavy wooden panels of his cell door are hitched together with a softer wood, we observe him, nearly endlessly, whittling away those connective pieces with the end of a spoon. But even then, we cannot begin to comprehend how he will, even if he might wander freely within the prison walls, escape. Orisini’s early attempt—which ends in his death—reveals moreover, that there are two walls to be scaled. And, in this sense, he has given his life to possibly save Fontaine’s.
      The more we observe Fontaine at work, however, the more we begin to perceive that he might never actually make his attempt to escape. Despite warnings from the others that time is short, Fontaine waits, fashioning yet new ropes and cables, replacing the door sections he has removed with dyed paper so that authorities will not notice his destruction of his determent.
      If Bresson might ever be said to have been influenced by Kierkegaard, it is in this work. Clearly, despite his determination, Fontaine does not yet have the faith to make Kierkegaard’s famous  leap into belief, is unwilling to give himself up entirely to the uncertainty of escape. And it is this “crisis of faith” that makes Bresson’s prisoner so very different from any other such figure portrayed. He is a tortured hero who may not live up to our attentions to him. Despite his intense belief in freedom and his great ability to manipulate the tools that will help him achieve that freedom, he waits and waits—almost until it is too late. Called to the German headquarters he is told that he has been found guilty and will soon be shot. 
     Upon return he is terrified that he will be transferred to another room or that, in his absence, his cell may have been searched. Fortunately neither has occurred, but an even worse crisis soon occurs when he given a young cell mate, a 16-year old boy, Jost (Charles Le Clainche) who has deserted from the German army. Has the boy been put there to spy on him, to find out his secrets, or even as a source of temptation? Fontaine has no choice but to consider the brutal possibility murdering his young roommate to carry out his self-defined mission. And facing that existential choice he wastes yet another day.
However, with yet another pillow available, he can braid together even a longer rope and, at the last moment, reveals his intentions to Jost, who, after some hesitation, agrees to join him. Together the two work more quickly than he might have alone, adding to their hooks and ropes yet new links that might help them in their hour of the escape.
     The escape itself is also like no other presented on film. Instead of adventurous and clock-driven swings over the walls, Bresson presents Fontaine’s and the boy’s escape as a game of cat a mouse, a thing of process that is made up by the two as they go along. Having breached one wall, they wait several hours before moving forward, in which time Fontaine almost seems to have lost his will once again, but during which he carefully observes the patterned movements of the guards, who march just a few steps in one direction before turning to march in an equal number of steps in the other direction, revealing, in their regulated militarism, a place just beyond their patrol where the two might alight.
      With careful and quiet maneuvers the duo slip down the final wall, no music to accompany them until, as they walk away, free men, into the fog, the Mozart music is repeated. The young Jost expresses the utter joy of their achievement: “If only my mother could see me now,” perhaps the most poignant and personal of all heroic actions.
      For Bresson, clearly, it is the truth of his story that matters, not its exceptionality. That someone did actually escape tells us everything we need to know about the human spirit and its possible survival.

Los Angeles, April 1, 2013

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