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A Man Escaped

Film Review by Dean Duncan Mar 28, 2015

Andre Bazin talked about Bresson’s narrative strategy in his 1951 milestone, Diary of a Country Priest. He observed that it is triply articulated, with the diary, and the narration, and then the actual enactment of the things that both describe. The result for Bazin was not the tautology that you might expect, but rather an almost unprecented intensity. A Man Escaped is amazingly multiple too: an exciting escape picture, a documentary about doing things with your hands, and about the intelligence required to come up with things for those hands to do, a parable that suggests the entirety of spiritual and ethical life. The prison metaphor that Paul Schrader (1972) discusses is here, obviously. More than that, it’s that faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. Intensity, and multiplicity too. For such a contained piece, it sure is enormous.

Faith? Bresson’s mis-en-scene (composition, framing, the general distribution of his visual material) contains the entire strategy/philosophy. It’s beautifully prefigured and exemplified in that first car sequence. The world is out there, perhaps even eternity. At least you hope they are. (The title [in French], the stunning epigrammatic scripture from John and all that exactly placed Mozart music really help to bolster the anxious viewer.) But the characters can’t get to it, and we in the audience can’t even see it. There’s no space! Everyone here is enclosed, almost to the point of oppression.

So you can either bow your head and despair, or you can put your head down and work. When you choose the latter, and spare a glance for your fellows, miracles can happen. And as in Carl Dreyer’s incalculable Ordet, the big miracle—the man escapes, after all—is no more important than the little ones. Look at what Fontaine does for his fellows, what his fellows do for him. I notice the dialogue. It’s sparse, of course, and delivered so minimally. But with those Byzantine faces (again, thanks Paul Schrader), the intensity of their looks and the tenderness of their gestures, it weighs so much! Apart from the human—sufficient, actually—A Man Escaped only opens up twice, in a visual sense. First, Orsini runs. A captive no more, but at such a cost! Second: “If my mother could see me now.” I thrill to even think about, or try to describe it. Utterly electrifying.