Written by: John White on February 12th, 2006
Theatrical Release Date: France, 1956
Director: Robert Bresson
Cast: François Leterrier, Charles Le Clainche, Maurice Beerblock, Roland Monod, Jacques Ertaud
DVD released: May 25, 2004
Approximate running time: 100 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 4:3
Sound: Dolby Digital Mono 2.0
DVD Release: New Yorker
Region Coding: Region 1 NTSC
Retail Price: $29.99
In occupied France, Fontaine has been captured by the Nazis after attempting to sabotage a train. On his way to incarceration he attempts to escape but is recaptured and given a fierce beating before being returned to a POW prison. Once he is able to move, Fontaine manages to send messages to the outside world. Eventually he recovers and after the Commandant makes him promise to not escape again he is moved into the general prison population where he meets others intent on escape. Fontaine steals a spoon and starts to use it to break through his cell door. Weeks pass and Fontaine eventually can leave his cell but it becomes clear there are further obstacles to overcome. Finally, he is moved to escape once the Nazis confirm he is to be executed only to find himself with a new cellmate he is not sure he can trust. Will Fontaine kill or befriend this new obstacle to his freedom.
Forget Jean Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, Jean Renoir or Eric Rohmer. Robert Bresson is the greatest of French filmmakers. Bresson believed in removing the theatricality of movies to make them seem as real as possible. Often using non-professional actors, Bresson’s films are a Gallic equivalent to Italian Neo-realism. This film opens with a short text saying that this film is based on an account of an escapee and is told as it happened – “unadorned”. This aesthetic plainness risks boredom in the audience who have become used to fast editing and the usual definition of film as being like life but with the boring bits removed. In Bresson’s films the prosaic becomes poetry because of his commitment to show it.
A Man Escaped is not a film where the French equivalent of Steve McQueen beats the Germans by being too cool, this is a film where patient ingenuity and passionate belief can’t be imprisoned. Without the use of montage, mixage or conventional soundtrack music, Bresson cranks up the tension as we become amazed by the escape. Whilst Fontaine waits to find the right time to escape other prisoners are shot and the constant fear of informers undermines any efforts, and eventually Fontaine’s new cellmate arrives.
The conclusion of the film with Fontaine’s shoeless escape is masterful. From the innocent looking new cellmate who may or may not be an informant to the escape across home made ropes and hooks, we wait and agonise with Fontaine becoming as tense as him. There is no chase sequence, no ultimate confrontation and no concession to the modern conceptions of the thriller.
This is the greatest of POW films and that is not because of evil Nazis, it is because it happened and it could happen. The film is a celebration of the human will to not be subjugated, that is as relevant today as it was in 1956.
The New Yorker disc is transferred from a PAL source and there is ghosting and other mild conversion issues here. The picture is quite sharp and the contrast is generally very good. There are some marks on the print which are probably dirt but they are noticeable throughout. The mono is good and the very occasional bursts of Mozart are well served. The film is presented in French with very good optional English subtitles.
There are a number of trailers on the disc for other New Yorker releases as well as a trailer for this film.
With no R2 release at present, the New Yorker and a Korean DVD release represent the only English language versions of the film on DVD at the moment. I believe an Artificial Eye R2 release is planned.
This is a great, great film. Godard is cool, Truffaut is clever and Renoir is loved, but Bresson is best. Own this.