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Man Escaped, A
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by Jay Seaver

"And I thought giving away the show in the TRAILER was bad..."
4 stars

The title doesn't leave much doubt about the outcome of this film, though I suppose there's the possibility that it's metaphorical, that Lieutenant Fontaine frees himself of fear or guilt or some other emotional prison. Writer/director Robert Bresson may have been feeling philosophical when making this film, but not so much that he feels the need to obscure events. The title (at least, the English translation) is straightforward, and the movie is truth in advertising: The ticket says "A Man Escaped", and the events of the movie are never far from that.

The film begins with an escape attempt, as Fontaine (François Leterrier) attempts to jump from the car while the Germans transport him to prison. Once he arrives, he is just as single-minded in his purpose. He examines the grounds, taps messages to people in the next cell, and takes inventory of the raw materials in his cell. From there, it is time to put his plan in action - and that's when the Nazis saddle him with a new cellmate. He can't escape without adding the kid to the plan, but everything about him screams "informer".

Bresson bases his film on the memoirs of real-life escapee André Devigny, and doesn't stint on the details; should you find yourself in a French penitentiary that the Nazis are using to house prisoners of war during World War II, this film provides excellent guidance on how to extricate oneself from that situation. There is, of course, some luck involved, but Bresson is so matter-of-fact and particular about everything that the film's plausibility is never in doubt. Things don't necessarily have to be just so, and there's little disbelief-defying need for Fontaine to rely on anything other than his own resourcefulness.

The film recounts Fontaine's escape plans in procedural detail, and without embellishment. There is no background music to highlight a particular moment's importance, no slow-motion, no rapid cuts to show different angles or locations. The only active device used is narration, and even that is often simple description of what we're seeing, rather than insight into Fontaine's emotional state. The camera seldom strays far from Leterrier, so that the audience, for the most part, only knows the information he is given. This, at times, makes for a rather dry film; watching a man twist bedhseets into ropes sans accompaniment is more enlightening than exciting. The prison's warden occasionally has Fontaine interrogated, and these scenes aren't really propulsive; we're briefly worried that the Nazis are on to him, or that the beating may leave him unable to continue with his plan, but the film seldom turns on those scenes. There are times when the viewer may just want the film to get on with it, since the pace is slower than he or she may be used to from modern films.

Interestingly, most of the film's cast had very few other credits as actors, although several would later become writers and directors. Star Leterrier, for instance, only acted in one other film (per IMDB); Charles le Clainche, who plays Fontaine's inconvenient cellmate François Jost, apparently has no other work in film. Since most of what is necessary is for them to do things, rather than convey feelings, that's fine. M. le Clainche makes François a cipher, which is as he should be, while Leterrier's single-minded concentration on his actions keeps the audience from being distracted. This is important, it says, and you look away at your own risk.

So, what's Bresson trying to say here, other than the obvious "a man escapes from prison"? If I had to guess, it's that our actions count. We may have strong feelings, and beliefs, but on their own, they don't change anything. Fontaine and his inspiration have a goal that is simple to articulate but difficult to accomplish, and they use everything at their disposal to achieve it. Hope won't make things different, nor will prayer.

I'm fond of that idea, and the process of considering the movie and reaching it raised my appreciation of the film considerably. But take fair warning: Unless you really enjoy process, this can be kind of rough going. It's straightforward almost to the point of austerity.

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originally posted: 02/09/06 17:41:09
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User Comments

1/19/09 Arthouse Monkey One of Bresson's greatest, a tale of haunting spirituality. 5 stars
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  DVD: 25-May-2004



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