Susan Sontag, in her essay, “Spiritual Style in the Films of Robert Bresson,” argues that “All of Bresson’s films have a common theme: the meaning of confinement and liberty.” A Man Escaped develops this theme more explicitly than in any other of his works, making it the best entry point into Bresson’s oeuvre.
The film details the imprisonment of a Free French rebel in World War II and typical of Bresson’s style, it contains lengthy sections of wordless action—the prisoner Fontaine plotting escape alone in his cell, leaving his cell for a meal, or waiting in line to dump his waste bucket. Bresson punctuates these scenes with evocative sound; the intense focus on physical and mundane tasks compels the viewer to look within the characters to understand.
But there Bresson places a second roadblock. In A Man Escaped, as in all of his films after Les Dames du Boulogne, the actors do not emote. Blank looks and unemotional responses populate the characters in the prison. Bresson resists the temptation to allow his characters to explain their deepest feelings and motivations. Such psychological speculation is simply out of the question.
By making these kinds of stylistic choices, Bresson drives the viewer to grapple with the spiritual realities of the narrative. In other words, as the main story focuses on the mundane, leaving the characters opaque, Bresson invites the viewer into spiritual contemplation. Rather than dictating particular thoughts or feelings to the audience, A Man Escaped opens a space for the viewer to interact and engage with the profound mysteries of human life, of our desire for freedom, and of the presence of God amid our struggles.
Robert Bresson’s minimalist style is in full force for A Man Escaped. However, even as I throw that term “minimalist” around, I wonder if it isn’t somewhat misleading. Without a doubt, A Man Escaped is one of the more exciting and arresting films out there. What Bresson is doing though is clear: by keeping the action confined to the perspective of the prisoner Fontaine, he in many ways shuts out the world beyond. It is through the absence of any knowledge of the outside world, the absence of any kind of context, the absence even of the faces of most of the German officers, that the confinement of Fontaine encroaches upon us as viewers.Yet the tension slowly builds. Bresson uses the sound and music to his advantage here. We get the soft sounds of the passing trolley train. We get the loud scraping as he jostles his door. We get the crunching of glass, the scraping of iron, and the tapping of neighbors, all of which serve to break the deafening silence. However, this becomes most apparent just as the escape begins. Fontaine and Jost have just ascended to the roof, and the use of the whistle and the moving train in this sequence make the tension nearly unbearable.
Bresson’s most ingenious move may be with his use of Mozart’s Mass in C Minor. The music seems to always break in either during or right around periods of movement for Fontaine – going to and from his cell, in the courtyard, etc. There is a freedom associated with music, something about it that is untamed, that cannot be contained. It works well when it shows up.
There are also a number of theological ideas running through the film, though on this viewing I was less attuned to those bits of dialogue and was rather focused on the rhythms of the film, the music, and the sound. This being my second viewing, I was definitely more emotionally engaged than before, when I admired but did not feel strongly about the film. The second viewing was a great improvement, as I expected it would be. No doubt a third will continue that trend.