Thursday, October 05, 2006

A Man Escaped (1956)

(Requested by drift wood.)

It's official -- Robert Bresson is now one of my favorite directors. I've been liking him more every time I encounter another of his films, but even so, I wasn't quite prepared for the sheer enveloping magnificence of A Man Escaped. Bresson's ascetic purity of form often reflects the single-minded intent of his main characters, and here this expression reaches its singular apex; the intense focus of Fontaine coupled with the inherent conflict in confinement narratives breeds a situation wherein Bresson's laser-eyed attention to detail and careful craftsmanship seem an organic enhancement of the film rather than a conscious affect. To put it another way, this is the rare film that never feels slow despite a general lack of incidence. The fun in escape narratives is never in the escape itself, it's in the process by which the escape is effected, and this is the logical extension of that -- it's maybe the only escape film that's all process. Fontaine's meticulousness, mirrored by Bresson's meticulousness, gets us involved with his every move in a way few films dream of; the mere act of grinding a spoon into a trowel, here, seems like the most exciting and tense-making thing in the world. Also not to be discounted is the spiritual/Christian aspects of the film -- the process of escaping is a pretty handy metaphor for spiritual rebirth (Bresson even has a character offer a relevant quote by Nicodemus) -- for Bresson's spiritual makeup is not a naive or helpless one. So goes an exchange between Fontaine and an imprisoned pastor:

Pastor: "Read and pray. God will save you."
Fontaine: "Only if we give him a hand."

Later, Fontaine says, "It would be too easy if God handled everything." Clearly, Bresson believes that God helps those who help themselves. As such, through the efforts of Bresson and lead actor Francois Leterrier (offering as crafty and intense a performance as any in the history of cinema), A Man Escaped becomes a tale about the triumph of the human spirit in all possible meanings of the word 'spirit.' So, yeah. This austere, beautifully crafted masterwork hasn't a moment of wasted time or effort and thus stands as a testament to the magic that can happen in art when all superfluous gestures are stripped away. Even the sound design is exemplary in both its economy and its effectiveness. A Man Escaped is good for the mind, good for the spirit and good for the inner ten-year-old boy who likes to see people escaping from things. Could this be the perfect movie? I'll bet it's damn close.

Grade: A


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