It is hard for me to admit, but I do not like Robert Bresson. I hated his film Pickpocket with such a passion that I actually went on one of those message boards after I watched it and ranted about how this film could be considered important (That by the way is something I NEVER do… I still hate myself for taking such a strong stance on the film in such a capacity). I thought the film was so slow, so painful, so full of pretension that I wanted to reach in the film and slap the character in the face. It made me resist his films for some time… that is until while bored at work, I read an article on a retrospective of Bresson films that was touring the country. Literally every time before when that director or any of his films were mentioned, I didn’t listen to the podcast, read the article, engage in the conversation, or pay any attention to it at all. However boredom at work makes you do strange things (including spending hours on youtube trying to figure out how to do hula hoop tricks only to remember that you don’t have a hula hoop) and therefore I paid attention to Bresson again and I read a synopsis of a film that actually intrigued me. It was this film and I found it for free on Hulu so I decided to give it a try. I will now commence in putting a foot in my mouth…
A Man Escaped is about a man stuck in a WWII POW camp. He cannot help but think of freedom and his hours are occupied with coming up with a scheme to escape this awful imprisonment. He is stoic and exacting because he has to be. He is a like and unlike his fellow prisoners. They all think of escaping, they all worry about their fates, and they all want some human connection. However it is only Fontaine that is successful in escaping, developing connections to the fellow prisoners, and is able to lead a life worth living even if they are stuck in an awful cell for most of the day.
I want to be clear that this film is just as dry as Pickpocket. Fontaine expresses nothing in his face, the voiceover that is ever-present only gives the slight motivations behind Fontaine’s actions, and the film is very long going. But the tension is always high. He has to be extremely quiet when he is etching out the panels from the door, he can only make rope from articles that would not look suspicious of him to be ripping up, his footsteps are softer than a mouse, and he gets discouraged almost daily by the actions of his fellow prisoners or by the guards. These actions and the constant threat makes the film exhilarating.
I loved the film because it felt so real. So many other films about imprisonment whether it be cast against WWII or any other war have a feeling of adventure and martyrdom that is forced and fake. Maybe because it was based on a true story, the author and prisoner acted as technical advisor in the film, they used all of the instruments he used to escape, and Bresson himself was a POW during WWII, the film feels rooted in authenticity. I find this authenticity refreshing. There is nothing glossy, overtly moral, or anything else that shows up in this film that are present in other films (For example Rescue Dawn and Schindler’s List take a tragic thing and make it into a gloss fest full of heavy-handed morals and over the top performances) that deal with this sort of subject matter. Fontaine’s constant preoccupation with freedom is just as damning as the old man’s loss of will to live, the priest constant need for religion, and the young kid’s need to drink. There is nothing heroic in his need to be free even when he is successful. He could have just as easily been unsuccessful and have damned everyone on his block. I think that any director wanting to make a POW film would make a better one if they see this film.