A Man Escaped (Day 60)

A Man EscapedMy Opinion: 7.2 || Intellectually absorbing prison film that ignores the usual genre elements to focus on the mechanics of escape. The minimalist approach means that although we spend every minute with the protagonist Fontaine, there’s not a lot in the way of traditional character development. The fascination comes from watching Fontaine’s quiet determination and creativity — and sweating every pivotal detail with him.

TITLE: A Man Escaped (Un condamné à mort s’est échappé)
DIRECTOR: Robert Bresson
LANGUAGE: French | COUNTRY: France
YEAR: 1956
PROFILE: Historical Drama | 99 minutes | IMDb (8.1)

SYNOPSIS (Courtesy of IMDb): A French Resistance activist is imprisoned by the Nazis and devotes his waking hours to planning an elaborate escape. Then, on the same day he is condemned to death, he’s given a new cellmate. Should he kill him or risk revealing his plans to someone who may be a Gestapo informer?

A Man Escaped

Strengths: A Man Escaped bears some resemblance to Battle of Algiers in terms of being a documentary-like textbook more than a standard character- or plot-driven film. It lacks the latter film’s socio-political dimensions and multiple perspectives but similarly excels at revealing the day-to-day texture of life under a state of siege — and the mechanics of fighting back. Bresson provides no insight into the other side of the conflict — in fact, he never even shows the Germans directly: they’re faceless adversaries. The focus is exclusively on Fontaine, and that limits the film’s scope, but effectively so, as we become immersed in his obsessive drive.

Like a character on a desert island, Fontaine’s success depends on his resourcefulness and economy, extracting useful materials from an extremely limited environment. His creativity and engineering prowess are wonderful to watch (and a bit intimidating to those of us who need to read the manual before using a hammer).

A Man Escaped

Weaknesses: Bresson makes very heavy use of voiceover, as Fontaine explains every action and element of his thought process. There are some important moments that would be difficult to interpret without the voiceover, but the commentary is often superfluous, telling us things that we could just as easily (and more satisfactorily) discern for ourselves. Altogether, the voiceover detracts from the film’s otherwise effective and disciplined minimalism.

It’s also the case that past-tense narration about an escape implies ultimate success — as does the film’s title — which reduces the will-he-make-it tension. These choices, clearly intentional, emphasize engineering over excitement. As a result, the movie’s pleasures (and there are many) are more intellectual than emotional.

Characters/Performances: François Leterrier, who sometimes resembles a young Alan Alda, is a curious presence. With a very slight build and expressions that seldom change, he’s a less than charismatic figure. But that composed, studious intensity fits perfectly with the film’s spare style and minimalist intensity, and he’s entirely believable.

A Man Escaped

Best Moment: With most of the film’s length devoted to patient preparation, it’s thrilling to see it all put into action in the final escape scene. Fontaine spends much of the movie trying to avoid making a sound, and the intense attention to quiet culminates in the escape itself, where even the smallest noise could be fatal. Bresson’s minimalism really pays off here, as we’ve become conditioned by this point to respond to minuscule details and sounds.

File Under: prison, escape, survival, ingenuity, engineering genius, World War II