Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped (1956) – the Friday Classic review
Shawshank for adults: the definite prison escape movie. Bresson’s unblinking focus offers a unique marriage of suspense and serenity that is profoundly rewarding
A Man Escaped
(Robert Bresson, Fr, 1955)
Once you’ve seen A Man Escaped, it’s hard to take seriously any survey of cinema that places The Shawshank Redemption amongst the medium’s greatest achievements. Shawshank is certainly not a bad film – indeed, it is something of a model of how to do a classical Hollywood drama – but its calculated sentimentality and sense of melodrama are made to look tawdry and obvious by the existence of Bresson’s spare, profoundly wise meditation on self-determination.
Such is its austerity that it doesn’t even feel like a movie. A Man Escaped has legitimate claim to being one of the few successful attempts at the much-maligned “Based on a True Story” genre. Usually the promise of that statement lasts only as long as the opening credits, when recognisable actors and the machinery of filmmaking kick in to highlight the artifice. Yet Bresson’s clinical, unfussy style holds the spell. With the use of non-professional actors, a simple camera style and few props (only voiceover and the occasional blast of Mozart), it’s something of a precursor to docudrama.
Bresson opens his film with Fontaine’s first, impetuous, unplanned escape. His failure is practically a manifesto for the film. There are to be no quick fixes; Bresson is in for the long game. Revealingly, one of Fontaine’s fellow captives is a pastor, whose policy is to pray for escape, but Fontaine argues that God alone is not enough: the prisoners have to help Him to help them. The result is one of cinema’s most illuminating studies of faith, with a practical attitude towards the subject that resonates for believers and atheists alike. The message is as religious as you want to make it: are Fontaine’s moments of extraordinary good fortune divine intervention, or just luck?
As a result, the feelgood of Fontaine’s escape is much more affecting because there’s no magic realism or twist ending. Our elation is earned because we share in Fontaine’s experience – we practically see every scrape of the spoon, and share in the fear of footsteps falling outside the cell (the heightened use of sound is arguably Bresson’s one concession to mainstream convention, but it’s not disruptive). The intense interiority is complemented by Francois Leterrier’s astounding performance. It’s often said that the actors in Bresson do not display emotion but that the viewer picks it up through the prism of the film. There’s surely no better example of that than the agonising long take as Fontaine prepares to kill the guard blocking his exit. There’s not a flicker of emotion in Leterrier’s eyes, but it conveys a multitude.
Where this scores over the intentionally obtuse bleakness of other Bresson films is in the fact that it’s also a terrific thriller. Every second resounds with the fear of being caught, and the final fifteen minutes, charting the eponymous escape, is nail-biting. The sequence has exactly the same grasp of suspense and controlled storytelling as Hitchcock and Spielberg, and Bresson’s whole single-minded career is all the more laudable when you realise that, had he not chosen the austerity of the art-house, he might have been just as famous and commercially successful.