Anatomy of a Perfect Film: Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped

A Man Escaped

Un condamné à mort s'est échappé
(A Man Escaped)
DIRECTED BY Robert Bresson
(© Gaumont, 1956)


Pauline Kael’s observation that “great movies are rarely perfect movies” succinctly describes how great cinema attracts the perils of excess in search of immeasurable truths. The greatest movies are those which take the greatest risks — that is, when the truth-content happens to outweigh the formidable risks in attaining it. Citizen Kane strikes us as great because Welles was audacious enough to use baroque literary devices in a medium still coming to grips with photographic realism. Kael gives her thesis another angle: “Irresponsibility is part of the pleasure of all art; it is the part the schools cannot recognize.” Wondrous indeed the film which is both perfect and great; rarer still the film whose perfection derives from a deliberate minimalism and severe reduction of expression…. Irresponsibility can be pleasurable in art (it isn’t always so) when the artist has visibly taken little-to-no scruples in obscuring the defects and limitations which characterize the work, when the artist has in fact exaggerated or blown these defects up in proportion to their support of an idea otherwise difficult to express. At such a point the defect becomes charming, idiosyncratic, purposeful; the filmmaker attains a remarkable idiosyncrasy in identifying the essential spirit of the film. The film of “perfection” in contrast bears up a placidity unendurable to the weary cinéaste; its parts are too measured, too calculated, its scenes so limpidly expressed that a ravenous boredom consumes the impatient spectator in search of dangerous, exotic perceptions. The so-called “perfect film” is too frequently one of truism and bloodless platitudes. This is because (in Kael’s words), “Art doesn’t come in measured quantities: it’s got to be too much or it’s not enough.”

Wondrous indeed the film which is both perfect and great; rarer still the film whose perfection derives from a deliberate minimalism and severe reduction of expression. Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped (1956) is one of those rare instances of a work whose greatness is directly characterized by its mechanisms of refinement; the film does not so much present a sheen of indisputable perfection as it reveals the hidden engine by which its nature produces a kinema of inward and outer symmetry. The risks taken in A Man Escaped — ordinary in themselves, but extraordinary in conjunction — are the same risks which characterize the whole esprit of Bresson’s œuvre. The risk, namely, of opting for counter-intuitive narrative techniques when more conventional ones present themselves.


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