Tuesday, 7 February 2012

A MAN ESCAPED - Review by Greg Klymkiw - Robert Bresson delivers the greatest prison escape film of all time. After seeing a gorgeous 35mm print that's part of the magnificent TIFF Cinematheque retrospective, The Poetry of Precision: The Films of Robert Bresson, I'm getting that warm vibe that happens when you think you need to revise your own personal list of Ten Best Movies of All Time. "A Man Escaped" is part of the continuing TIFF Cinematheque retrospective of the complete works of Robert Bresson as organized/curated by legendary film programmer/curator James Quandt.

A Man Escaped (1956) dir. Robert Bresson
Starring: François Leterrier, Roger Treherne, Maurice Beerblock, Charles Le Clainche


By Greg Klymkiw

I've seen extremely positive references to A Man Escaped on newsgroups, message boards and the IMDB user reviews. This doesn't surprise me because it's such a great film. Why wouldn't movie fan-boys/girls love it? What surprises me, though is just how many of them speak positively of Bresson's stunning and perfect prison escape film in the same breath as Frank Darabont's ridiculously overrated The Shawshank Redemption.

This seems akin to positively equating Ernst Lubitsch's pre-code sex comedy masterpiece Design For Living with any number of the seemingly endless Tim Bevan-produced rom-coms with Hugh Grant - most notably, I think, something like Bridget Jones's Diary. The only comparison point I see between Bresson and Darabont is that they both have director credits on their respective films.

Unlike the glorified HBO-styled movie Darabont created, A Man Escaped has no cliches - none! Within the noble genre of men seeking escape from incarceration, none feel quite as true-to-life as Bresson's. If cliches exist within the context of Bresson, they're mainly in the almost dull mantra of critical assessment and analysis which continually points to his austerity, minimalism, unique use of sound and eschewing all the usual frissons of commercial filmmaking such as overly dynamic camera movement, frame composition and showy editing. Whilst these elements are true to Bresson's style, I think there's far too much emphasis on them to support what I think is, finally, a magnificent blend of humanity with a keen sense of razzle-dazzle filmmaking.

Yes, I think Bresson's work is incredibly exciting - it's emotional, visceral and, in the case of A Man Escaped, almost unbearably suspenseful. It is the truth Bresson seeks to unfurl that allows for the thrills that do indeed punctuate the picture and, in its final third, have us biting our fingernails and gnawing both cuticles and flesh from said digits.

The most annoying cliche of Bressonian analysis is his seeming disinterest in narrative. This, for me, is a crock. Even though he admitted as much on numerous occasions, I don't believe him. Or perhaps, I don't believe HE believed what he was saying. He's a storyteller and a showman, and enough of one, I think, that he'd go out of his way to dismiss mainstream elements to buoy his legacy. His work almost always had a rock-solid spine of story. Simple, yes, but simple in that magnificent way that allows a filmmaker to drape the work with elements that add weight to the material - to make it go well beyond skin-deep.

A Man Escaped tells the simple tale of Andre Devigny (François Leterrier), a French resistance operative captured by the Nazis and flung into the prison of Fort Montluc in Lyon, where he will be beaten, interrogated, given an unfair trial and finally be sentenced to death. From the beginning, Devigny is obsessed with escape. It's what keeps him sane, strong and alive. Bresson charts the man's painfully slow planning and execution of an escape that might even lead to death. It's this very notion of a character knowing he could die in flight that weighs heavily on Devigny and, indeed we, the audience.

The brilliant thing Bresson achieves here is focusing upon the day-by-day drudgery of isolation, though in so doing, it's not tedious because Bresson, having natural filmmaking gifts, roots the solitude in the narrative thrust. It gives us the opportunity to experience what Devigny experiences - not just the physical weight of waiting, but always staying with the character in a claustrophobic setting - hearing and seeing from his perspective. What this approach forces us to do most, is experience the character's desire for freedom to such an extent that we are tantalized with the possibility of his freedom, but we also experience - in an almost transcendental fashion the existential weight of escaping to live - even if it means death.

This is powerful, compelling stuff. There's nothing quite more gripping than seeing a man alone in a prison cel. Scenes from other movies that jump out at me are often those of solitary confinement in more traditional prison pictures - Steve McQueen as Henri Charrière in Franklin Schaffner's Papillon - going mad, eating bugs, removing rotting teeth and becoming increasingly decrepit, yet fiercely displaying ocular defiance in those baby blue McQueens that pierce our very souls; or, just as compelling, Denzel Washington as Ruben Carter in Norman Jewison's The Hurricane - alone in his cell with just his thoughts and the horrors of his past life that have led to incarceration and finally, his horrific and profoundly moving moments when Ruben seems to split into two different facets of himself and engaging in a conversation, with himself, that becomes increasingly ridden with despair and self-loathing.

These and a few others, are great moments of incarceration in the cinema, but they are scenes within much larger canvasses. Bresson, on the other hand, creates a sense of sweep and scope by focusing almost solely on the visual constraints of imprisonment - almost from beginning to end. By putting us squarely in Devigny's sphere, we're not mere flies on the wall, we almost become Devigny himself. This, frankly, is why the final third is suspenseful to the point of both mental and almost physical agony.

Also, the performances of both McQueen and Washington, while genuinely great, are bigger than life. Bresson uses the soulful, yet almost poker-faced François Leterrier as his hero. The performance is so understated that it commands an entirely different aplomb. Leterrier is steely and single-minded - his goal clear throughout and dramatically we are drawn deep into his soul.

Hearing and seeing ONLY what Devigny experiences - the morse-code tapping, the brief glimpses of the outside courtyard when he hoists himself up to look out, the low mutterings between the men when guards are not within earshot to make them shut up - all give us an extraordinary experience of what it must be like to sit alone in a tiny cell, waiting for the inevitability of execution. Frankly, only one film comes close to capturing such an inevitability, Richard Brooks's astonishing film adaptation of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood. The difference though is that one character accepts being doomed while Devigny steadfastly does NOT.

For me, the two movies that come closest to achieving what Bresson delivers are Jacques Becker's Le Trou, a true life prison drama with similar uses of long-takes punctuated by sounds that are either mysterious or so jarring the the success and safety of those escaping become unendurably tense. The other picture is Werner Herzog's stupefying documentary Little Dieter Learns to Fly where Herzog takes his subject, a former P.O.W. to the actual locations of his incarceration and shoots a step-by-step recreation of the man's ordeal. In the latter film, it's the notion of survival through escape, even if it means death, that rings true and, in so doing, Herzog created the only movie that actually comes close to Bresson's tale of flight at any cost.

Not wanting to take away from Bresson's genius, but the story he tells IS true - true to the point of being as unfettered an adaptation of the real Devigny's wartime memoirs which chart his escape from a prison where 7000 out of 10,000 men were brutally murdered by the Nazis and additionally that Bresson himself served two years as a prisoner of war. Life experience makes for great movies, but said movies must also create their magic so that they're always moving forward in compelling ways.

That said, the reality Bresson creates is, finally, a mediation AND manipulation. This is where the aforementioned razzle-dazzle comes in. He expertly uses all the magic of movies HE needs to create a vivid and breathtaking portrait of escape.

A Man Escaped is, first and foremost - a movie.

And with few equals, it's one hell of a GREAT movie!

"A Man Escaped" is playing as part of the Tiff Cinematheque retrospective "The Poetry of Precision: The Films of Robert Bresson" Thursday February 9 at 6:30 PM and Sunday February 12 7:00 PM at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. Tickets are available HERE. To read the Klymkiw Film Corner Robert Bresson Man-Cave feature, go HERE.