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.

A Man Escaped, Bresson’s fourth film, is considered the second installment in an unofficial trilogy of films by Bresson that rely heavily on voice-over narrative. The first film in this trilogy is Diary of a Country Priest, and the third is Pickpocket, both of which could also stand as exponents of a peculiar and masterful refinement. The narrative structure of A Man Escaped is no more complicated than its title suggests, in French, Un condamné à mort s’est échappé (“One Condemned to Death Has Escaped”). The title says it all: a French Resistance lieutenant named Fontaine is captured and brought to a prison camp in Lyon, where he awaits near-certain death at the hands of the Nazis. As the days build up, Fontaine, unrelenting in his desire to escape, devises a prison-break scheme that miraculously proves successful. On paper, the film lacks sophistication. The basic circumference of the story, which never strays beyond the immediate reality of the hero, from the moment he is imprisoned until his clandestine departure, is adapted from a memoir by André Devigny, a Resistance fighter and World War II survivor on whom the character Fontaine is modeled. The storyboard complexities and peripheral “historical” material that typify a Hollywood production of the same plot would have given us a longer film of exaggerated pathos, multiple side characters, and a prevailing obsession over the grandiose gesture. Bresson instinctively (or, should we say, against conventional instinct) decides rather to obsess over the grandly minute, the obscurely serendipitous, the infinitely tangible.

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

The simplicity of the title embodies the film’s philosophical significance: the man who is condemned to death has already escaped, has utterly broken free, from the penal colony. In other words, we know already that Fontaine will break free, even when we see, from the first scene, that he is apprehended and being escorted by the faceless villains, the Nazis and French collaborators. The suspense of the story (its kinema function, its ploy of mobility) is meant to emerge like an unseen gas from another sector, from the very soil of the physical setting as opposed from the structural grain of the plot — as a process of natural, perhaps anomalous, growth. Fontaine’s story, which is emphatically introduced in medias res, in the very presence of its unfolding, takes place in the present state of things as a discourse of unseen trajectory (unseen by him and by those who surround him in the fictional space of the film). What is a process of fiction/fictionalizing for Fontaine, the owner of his destiny, is a matter of nonfiction for us. We are gazing at him through the lens of the historical (we know this story to be true, to have happened, in the past), while he, on the other hand, is performing for us from the perspective of a craftsman at work; a man given charge over the tools of his liberty — emphatically in the present-tense. I do not mean to imply that Fontaine is aware of the spectator, or that Bresson institutes a meta-cinematic approach to the telling of a true story; only that, as we swiftly learn, Fontaine’s consciousness plays on a separate track from what his body-in-kinema performs. When Fontaine speaks to himself, he is speaking to us, implicitly, as the witnesses of an organic mechanism at work in a simultaneously historical/fictional unfolding.

Notes on Cinematography

Notes on Cinematography
BY Robert Bresson
(Urizen Books, 1977)

It is important to stress the nonfiction aspect of the film not from an aesthetic standpoint (the question of the film’s authenticity as a historical document, much less as an artfully cinematic document, is never entertained by Bresson) but, paradoxically, from the standpoint of original act; or to use poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s apt phrase, from the “inner standing point” of the artist/model. The inner standing point isn’t to be confused with the psychological function of the actor (François Leterrier) who plays Fontaine, much less with the inner psychology or dynamic value of the hero. Bresson was well-known for detesting and curbing any dramatic, “actorly” qualities in his performers, to whom he assigned the more restrictive roles of “human models.” For Bresson, the art of “cinematography” (as he preferred to call filmmaking) had very little to do with a character’s development, as it would for instance in dramaturgy and theatre, because what the camera does best is to strip away the layers that obscure a person’s inherent essence. In Bresson’s view, the actor who strives to fool the camera by wearing masks and feigning a psychological behavior foreign to the actor’s own sensibility stays a mere mask. The very thing itself that is meant to be limned — corpus, eyes, visage: the actor’s body-in-kinema — is replaced by a disingenuous performance. The human model is a living, breathing archetype of a (possibly) transcendent idea, or a flesh-and-blood module in search of a certain liberty (often too a kind of submission) which can only be described as spiritual. The human model exhibits powerfully static emotions that are methodically stripped away to a pulp in a countermeasure of restraint, silence, and iconographic passivity. In his Notes on Cinematography, Bresson dictates a formula for his (non-)direction of the (non-)actor:

No actors.
(No directing of actors.)
No parts.
(No learning of parts.)
No staging.
But the use of working models, taken from life.
BEING (models) instead of SEEMING (actors).

HUMAN MODELS: Movement from the exterior to the interior.
(Actors: movement from the interior to the exterior.)

The thing that matters is not what they show me but what they hide from me and, above
all, what they do not suspect is in them.

It is easy to suspect that a muted metaphysicality lurks in Bresson’s way of thinking. BEING (in capitals) is directly opposed to SEEMING; essence over and against semblance. But closely watching his films, and reading more of his Notes, “Being” to Bresson has a Heideggerian slant, insofar as the human model (“being”) isn’t any particular man — isn’t necessarily this man — and yet can be nothing other than the living breathing concept of “man” — of a species particularized in time by a generalized force, the cinematographic eye. The human model, alloyed as it is by the concrete fibers of the body and the immaterial vicissitudes of the mind, is a sculpture in time, a composite of Bergsonian duration. To the degree that the mental life of a human model is unknowable except through the acts of the body, Bresson’s cinematographic art devotes itself to exposing the body-mechanics that provoke epiphany (what I have already suggested as developing the human model’s “body-in-kinema”). To Bresson, the human body remains the visible and quite tactile canvas on which the hermetic spirit flickers and manifests.

To this end, Fontaine’s revelations are meaningfully physiological, immanent on the same plane of rhythm as his own beating heart. The reduction which the film makes, archly representative of Bresson’s famed minimalism, is that of our own privileged consciousness (our historical consciousness that views Fontaine’s story as true) scaled down gradually but ceaselessly to the level of Fontaine’s immediate perceptual consciousness, which persists in the continually present nature of things, in the phenomenological domain of his secluded prison-scape. We never sense this reduction occurring, but it is relentless. The transition occurs with the unavoidable vicinity and cataloguing of things, of materials, actions, and silences, and continue with the immanent energies that lie dormant in things but which menace and call out through their very unity. The steps toward transcendence begin with a stolen metal spoon and a purloined pencil, continue with an eidetic and quite accidental meditation on the prison cell door, pass on to the shredding of clothes, the crushing of glass shards, the bending of wires and metal frames, terminate in the dull ring of a hook flung onto concrete and brick, and a body climbing up a rope in ghostly darkness.

Place and time are given substance, in this order, for the birth of our hero to transpire; that is, we cannot fail to recognize that Fontaine, the human model derived from the life of André Devigny, is also a living man of spiritual composition, or should we say, of mythic composition…

Let us return to the beginning. During the first frames of the film, Bresson’s camera gazes at a plaque which reads (in French): “Here during the German Occupation, 10,000 victims suffered at the hands of the Nazis. 7,000 of them perished.” We read this for obvious reasons. One, the story is true. Bresson goes out of his way to establish this fact. Even before our sighting the plaque, we read the preliminary superimposed text: “This is a true story. I’ve told it as it happened, without embellishment.” The statement is signed below by the director himself. The plaque, moreover, is to be taken as a physical fact of the world, the very same plaque that adorns the side of the actual prison camp, Fort Montluc in Lyon. Lest we lose sight of the realness of the setting, the very next frame informs us, “Lyon, 1943,” so as to append temporal realism to the story. Place and time are given substance, in this order, for the birth of our hero to transpire; that is, we cannot fail to recognize that Fontaine, the human model derived from the life of André Devigny, is also a living man of spiritual composition, or should we say, of mythic composition; alive now as he was alive for that time, a symbol equally for the French Resistance and for the French-Catholic perseverance. Secondly, we read the plaque because we are entreated to contemplate the cold brutal fact, just as when we visit the sites of the Holocaust, that the greater percentage of people who were interned, punished, tortured, and starved there did not survive. They perished, passing out of existence into the grim numerologies of fate. Hence, Fontaine’s situation is meant to be taken as a veritable miracle, the exception to the reality. A man who was purposed to die but didn’t.

The first thing we know about Fontaine are his hands. He is in the back of a speeding car, to the far right of two handcuffed men, the passenger door pressing him on his left. Furtively, his hands creep to the door handle: he is looking to exit the car at any given chance, and yet his hands aren’t handcuffed. This is very telling of who, intrinsically, Fontaine is: his hands are free to explore the range of his liberty, because this man is meant to be free. We have to attribute this oversight, factually speaking, to the ineptness of his captors, whose faces and voices are never fully, satisfyingly perceived; no dialogue ever starts up to familiarize us with the setting and action. The film’s soundtrack, which began in a lush movement of Mozart’s Mass in C minor, has segued into the tense silence of bound men and men with guns, and the oppressive one-note drone of a speeding car, the mechanical stutter of gears shifting, and the indifferent bustle of traffic assemble to contextualize the vividness of the scene. Bresson wastes no second to create suspense: a swift montage phrase incorporating Fontaine’s blank face, his hands creeping, stopping, creeping again to the handle, in tense parallel with that of the unseen driver’s hands shifting gears, slowing the car, accelerating, stopping, sparks a dramatic immediacy which is wholly cinematographic. When the car finally does stop, Fontaine takes his chance, lunges out of the car… but the camera stays put, fixated on the curious absence left behind by Fontaine’s uninhabited seat, while just outside the car’s rear window we see policemen shoot guns threateningly and rush out to recapture the fleeing Fontaine. We don’t wait long: he is quickly returned to his seat, and now he is handcuffed. But in a few seconds we’ve learned enough of a man of whom we know so little: he appears to be chronically, even involuntarily, committed to the one idea, freedom. It is possible that no thoughts circulate in his mind apart from the mechanically generated desire to be free; his actions are all that he is, and his actions risk life at the prospect of liberty. Out of the void of history, a man, whose name we still at this point don’t know, is a figure whose hunger for freedom is established a priori. In this way, we know more of him than can be possibly known by those to whom he was born naturally, in a historical and personal context, to his family, his friends, etc. In the eye of the camera, the figure of Fontaine mimics that of the angel who exists only to contemplate singularities.

A Man Escaped

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

Fontaine is brought to prison, spat upon, and beaten. We don’t see his beating. Bresson’s restraint is such that screen violence is never an imperative. We don’t even see the faces of his assailants; that Fontaine’s persecutors are Nazis means nothing in the course of things; they may as well be hostile foreigners in an uncharted territory. What we do see is enough: Fontaine stands in a corner in the way children being disciplined stand in a classroom, his face to the wall and his back to us, while clamorous German voices rattle off-screen. An SS Guard walks up to Fontaine, spits at his withdrawn face, then, to complete his humiliation, they turn him around toward the camera, toward us, and we see his face, bloodied from a gun-butt to the head. This evokes Dreyer’s Jeanne d’Arc (the gun-butt occurred right when Fontaine was brought back to the car, after his failed attempt to flee, and one of the soldiers leans toward him and with the butt of his pistol raised…. Bresson then fades out, the clarity of the stroke is obscured — because the gesture suffices to denote a brief and contained sphere of violence). More men come and lead Fontaine to a chamber, inside which the camera does not dare enter. Instead it focuses on the hands of the prison guards who walk in after Fontaine and grasp heavy rods. (Fade out.) Again, the minimal gesture of a hand lifting a revolver, a hand grabbing a bludgeon, or a hand surreptitiously feeling the door handle of a car suffices to outline the general figure of a scene. In this scene the hero desires to flee; in this scene he is tormented and punished; in this scene he is humiliated: like the Stations of the Cross that depict the stages of Christ’s Passion in stained glass icons, each scene is a complete unit in and of itself, progressions in the formulation of a uniquely agonistic existence. Bresson’s art relies on restraint because subtlety well-wrought registers a lengthier and sustained resonance. An action interrupted or halted, in the midst of its occurring but never quite finishing, already engenders the entirety of the action, like in the positioning of figures in an early Netherlandish painting who convey a whole philosophy in the relaxation of a finger, in the tilting of a head, in the color of a garment.

A Man Escaped is a work of a very particular type of consciousness awakening, strengthening, growing: a mechanical consciousness invested in spiritual cognition.

It could be wagered that the film by this point hasn’t properly begun yet. A Man Escaped is a work of a very particular type of consciousness awakening, strengthening, growing: a mechanical consciousness invested in spiritual cognition. The German soldiers lay Fontaine, beaten-to-unconsciousness, down on the floor of a small cell, and exeunt. We fixate our attention on Fontaine’s closed eyes and bloodstained countenance (though it appears no more bloody than how he looked before the beating — Bresson’s realism has no interest in the gruesome or gratuitous). We sense his eyes move, as eyes do during rapid eye movement, and after a few seconds, a voice springs up (Fontaine’s eyes are still closed): “I could feel I was being watched. I didn’t dare move.” Instantly we are aware of ourselves: does he sense we are watching him? Unequivocally, we know the voice is his — he speaks in first-person, and it is his countenance we study. Though it had not spoken before, the voice rhymes with Fontaine’s lain body, and to confirm it, Fontaine opens his eyes a brief instant to absorb his surroundings in a glance, as if verifying that indeed the consciousness which has just awoken is his. It is at this crucial junction that the film properly begins. Fontaine’s body-in-kinema (his living body submerged in the liquid fragmentation of cinematic space-and-time) is awakened only upon the presentiment that he is being watched, not only by the German guards who position themselves behind the cell door and spy on him, but also by the medium itself, the cinematographic eye. The Germans who persecute Fontaine are nameless, faceless, because the camera too is nameless, faceless.

Fontaine’s voice-over consciousness signals a doubling concomitant with a duality set in two alternate time-zones, by the Germans who peer at him behind the cell door (in fictional space-and-time), and by the spectator who peers at him even more closely from the perspective of the actual. In the next scene, when the prison guards storm inside his room during the late night, they wake up and order Fontaine to rise. He “instinctively” feigns weakness, implying, incredibly, that his strength has borne his suffering better than we expected, but also in an effort to fool the German officers into believing that he is too weak to get up. So he “performs” for them, as an actor would for an audience, rising with simulated anguish, falling to his bed slightly, then rising again with visible effort. Fictional space-and-time is pleased by this performance, the Germans decide that Fontaine really is too weak to stand and be executed properly, so they leave the actor to his reward (“Did that pathetic ruse save my life?” he wonders after being left alone). Fontaine’s “performance” briefly demonstrates his resolve to use his body-in-kinema (his body fragmented, pushed, and pulled by the camera’s eye) as a ruse of liberation. But his self-in-thought acts as a counterpoise to this body-in-kinema and generates a second perceptual track that reshapes the dynamics of the story. For one, Fontaine’s voice-over self seems to emerge from an invisible phenomenal realm, from the audio spectrality that dominates so much of what happens in A Man Escaped. When something occurs outside Fontaine’s cell, it exists only in sound: since we are restricted only to what Fontaine perceives directly, whatever happens outside his sight rings strictly on the audio sense. We imagine the world outside the fictional space of the cell as one potentially more real than where Fontaine eats, thinks, and sleeps — its rhythms, sensed by ear but unseen, develop a sharp unimpeachable realness (Bresson, Notes: “Rhythmic value of a noise. Noise of a door opening and shutting, noise of footsteps, etc., for the sake of rhythm”). Resultantly, a fable of cinema blossoms from the mold: Fontaine finds himself imprisoned by the storied conventions of cinema and historicity, moving him to search for a way to break free of these fetters and escape into the “true life,” into freedom and actuality. Thrust into a fictional space by the cinematographic eye and corralled brutally by the irrational march of history (the Nazis, against all sense and reason, occupying France), Fontaine has no choice but to work with the meager utensils proffered him by an impoverished but rock-steady locus.

What chiefly matters to the mind starved of multiplicity and forced to inhabit a closed world (the confinement to a cinematic domain) is the extent to which its sanity and goodwill coincide with the realism that a realm of stringency presents to it.

This restricted consciousness is integral to the decisions Bresson makes on the scaffolding of the film’s diegetic space. A Man Escaped is abundantly famous for the perceptual limitations it imposes on Fontaine, who is locked away in solitude, and on the audience as well, who are forced to watch the film unfold from Fontaine’s closely-circumscribed perspective. As such, the objects and materials that constitute the actual space he inhabits (the cell door, the bed and mattress, the grated prison window, the concrete walls, the spoon, the pencil) assume a heightened importance. The same would be true of any long-term prisoner who is locked away in a state of poverty and dire reduction; objects, food, and thoughts become more precious, in some ways more tangible. What chiefly matters to the mind starved of multiplicity and forced to inhabit a closed world (the confinement to a cinematic domain) is the extent to which its sanity and goodwill coincide with the realism that a realm of stringency presents to it. The desire to escape into actuality, into freedom, is reciprocated by an inverse proclivity to acknowledge the reality of one’s closed space, and the objects within that space, which rest in close ineradicable proximity. Ultimate freedom appears distant, but its validity must be understood from the perspective of non-freedom; the real must be defined by what is consequently “artificial.” Herein lies the objective value of a cinematic space, formerly artifice and fallacy, now restored by Bresson to the undifferentiating eye of the camera: the body-in-kinema (Fontaine in his cell) learns to alchemize the props of a scenario into the instruments of a veritable aesthetic liberation (from the worn conventions of cinema, from the torment of history, from imprisonment, etc.). A pencil is more so a pencil in solitude, where one can speak to no one, because it presupposes the possibility of speech; in the fictional space of the cell, the powers of a single instrument become heightened in Fontaine’s estimation, become a way out. Diegetic space, defined by Fontaine’s dual consciousness, throws us into the direct ontologies of things and actions. To this end, Bresson’s art ruptures traditional symbolism (and by extension, disrupts a pure and idle metaphysics) by making a direct use of symbols, bestowing on symbols concrete values and utility. Fontaine learns to recognize their value insofar as these objects can be used against the scenario (the spoon can also be used as a chisel, the chisel can be used to take apart a door, the mattress cover can be used as rope, and so forth).

Let us return to the scenario. The following day, Fontaine, now more or less recovered from the brutality he received earlier, mentally sizes up his cell. Cinematic space is converted to actuality: “My cell barely measured three meters by two. It was sparsely furnished, a wooden bedstead with a straw mattress and two blankets.” He notices more objects and openings: a sanitary pail, a stone shelf, and an iron-grated window through which he sees three men, French prisoners, walking in an inner courtyard. It is a peculiar irony that of the three clean-shaven, well-dressed men who walk methodically across the courtyard, Fontaine catches the attention of the one in the middle, a man who looks remarkably like Robert Bresson himself. Fontaine asks this man, who introduces himself as Thierry, whether he knows how to deliver letters to the outside. Thierry cautiously answers, “I know a way.” If we momentarily mistake the character for Bresson the director, the response assumes a greater significance: Bresson, the director whose method of filmmaking is, metaphorically speaking, responsible for Fontaine’s imprisonment (behind the impermeable walls of cinema) suggests that liberation is possible through the self-same artifice of the cinematographic method. In other words, one has to reform one’s way of seeing, of composition and selectivity, in order to break down the obstacles of convention, history, and isolation.

…one has to reform one’s way of seeing, of composition and selectivity, in order to break down the obstacles of convention, history, and isolation. Living in prison swiftly becomes the analogy for living in self.

Living in prison swiftly becomes the analogy for living in self. But this enforced monk’s habit is hardly the description of an advanced solipsism; it is the adumbration of a physiological victory, a kind of materialist transcendence. I have probably misled the reader to think that Fontaine is a man alone in his projects, that he is consistently isolated from the other prisoners. Since no man is an island unto himself, A Man Escaped features numerous scenes where Fontaine interacts with other inmates, many of whom participate and share in Fontaine’s unvanquished hopes for freedom. From the very beginning, Fontaine habitually taps on the prison walls to communicate with the inmates neighboring him; after he is transferred to another room, he strikes up a communication with an initially reluctant older inmate named Blanchot, a man more willing to kill himself than endure the terror and waiting of condemnation. Fontaine’s unflagging optimism and relentless stratagems for escape inevitably inspire Blanchot to share in the Lieutenant’s enthusiasm for hope and the possibility of freedom. During the scenes when Fontaine and the other inmates on his floor are marched out to empty their sanitary pails, Bresson utilizes the “Kyrie Eleison” from Mozart’s Mass in C minor as a motif to signal the mass-like qualities of the inmates’ congregation; though they are imprisoned and vulgarly trotted out to empty their waste and line up for inspection, Bresson celebrates the unifying element in their gathering, one of the rare weekly occasions when the prisoners are allowed to walk outside and see each other’s faces. It could be averred that the use of Mozart seems to contradict Bresson’s assertions that nondiegetic music is superfluous to the designs of a film (Notes: “No music as accompaniment, support or reinforcement. No music at all. Except, of course, the music played by visible instruments”), but Mozart’s music during these parts seems to spring forth from the very bodies of the inmates, giving the “Kyrie” a diegetic origin. In the same fashion that Fontaine’s voice-over consciousness emerges from outside the scenario’s physical trappings, the “Kyrie Eleison” swells from the worn bodies of the inmates as they march in solemnity through the sun-struck courtyard. For Bresson, the music of communal presence is responsible for upholding the faiths of the condemned and lowly. Fontaine’s progress is also their consolation; their belief in him is his encouragement.

Much has been made of the faith-apparatus that drives many of the film’s tenets. Bresson is rightfully singled out as a director of a profound religious sensibility, and more specifically of an interest in Christian theology, so A Man Escaped undeniably serves as a fable of religious dimension. First of all, there is the question of the film’s subtitle, Le vent souffle où il veut (“The wind blows where it wills”), quoted from the Book of John (3:8), in which Jesus instructs Nicodemus on the manner in which a man can be “born again”:

Nicodemus saith unto him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born?” Jesus answered, “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Marvel not that I said unto thee, ‘ye must be born again.’ The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.”

Following our comprehension of Fontaine’s dual consciousness, we may propose an analogy by comparing Jesus’ distinction of the flesh-body from the spirit-body, to the body-in-kinema counterpointed by the self-in-thought in A Man Escaped. If Fontaine resigns himself to his cinema-flesh, then the scenario will end, as the plaque at the beginning of the film reminds us, in the death and oblivion of a numberless people; if, however, Fontaine is ingested by the “spirit,” which comes and goes as it may, then he will find the keys to the “kingdom of God”; in cinematic terms, Fontaine will evade the mortality of history and scenario via kinetic revelation — Fontaine, whose celluloid flesh is meant to die with the grim scenario of history, will be reborn as a living embodiment of the survivor, the believer, as the actual André Devigny, the indefatigable hero who found his faith in a spoon.

Fontaine’s working theology is mechanistic and pragmatic, and his sense of freedom is a very real location that can only be realized through tactile means.

That Fontaine’s key to freedom assumes the shape of a stolen metal spoon that he scrapes down to a chisel — which in turn leads to his discovery of the cell door’s anatomy and dismantlement, and so forth — is a material fact that honors the severe minimalist attention to detail which embodies the film’s philosophical praxis. Fontaine’s working theology is mechanistic and pragmatic, and his sense of freedom is a very real location that can only be realized through tactile means. During the terse conversation scenes where he and the other prisoners are allowed to bathe their faces, hands and neck, Fontaine establishes a friendship with a priest, with whom he shares his plans for freedom. The priest laments that he had not taken a Bible with him when he was arrested by the Nazis, and Fontaine offers him his pencil as consolation (“I don’t have a Bible but I do have a pencil”). This response conjures up the intrinsic difference between the priest’s and Fontaine’s conceptions of faith: the former’s hope rests in prayer and contemplation, whereas the latter’s is more pragmatic — Fontaine’s “gospel” consists in writing it — in actualizing it — as opposed to reading it. Another scene repeats the dialectic: the priest announces he has fortunately come into possession of a Bible, and right behind him, Fontaine, noticing an unregarded spoon, whispers to himself, “I am lucky too,” and takes the new spoon to replace a broken one. Bresson makes the dialectic between the two faiths most obvious in a third scene where the priest advises Fontaine to “read and pray. God will save you.” To which Fontaine replies, “He’ll only save us if we give him a hand. It would be too easy if God took care of everything.” This type of theology insists that grace must be supported by acts of faith for it to be operational in the human spirit (Catholic dogma establishes that actual grace does not eliminate the actions of free will nor presuppose the absence thereof), and Fontaine’s faith-system, while not contradicting the priest’s contemplative mode, goes further to make an art of its instruments. This artistry of the instruments of faith may stand as a representation of Bresson’s personal theology and art-practice.

The art of cinematography, as we well know, derives from a technologic origin, so that the cinematograph (the element of kinema inscribed on film) is produced through an arrangement and operation of mechanisms. To the degree that the human body is captured and redefined by a mechanical eye, Bresson’s human models can be suitably considered mechanisms of scrupulously-weighted human emotion. The human model, moreover, isn’t separated from the scenario; whether against the narrative of the scenario (as in A Man Escaped) or shepherded by its flow (as in Diary of a Country Priest), the human model is a sensuous extension of the mechanism which it generates. This is what I have thus far indicated as being the interstitial space where the human model slides into and is submerged in the liquid space of cinema, i.e. the body-in-kinema. Bresson’s intention, however, is not to repeat or sublimate the mechanism at work as its own end, but to transcend and transform dumb machinery via the corporeal and emotional actuality of the human model, its covenant inscribed on film by the model’s acts of faith (or contrary acts). In this way, the passion of the human model vindicates the mechanical innocence of the camera, by restoring concrete values to the human spectacle. Bresson’s thought is anti-intellectual insofar as the abstract and theatrical uses of cinema have failed to achieve cinema’s true potential as an ‘honest-eyed mechanism’ capable of glimpsing the human model in a pure state.

No intellectual or cerebral mechanism. Simply a mechanism… If, on the screen, the mechanism disappears and the phrases you have made them say, the gestures you have made them make, have become one with your models, with your film, with you — then a miracle.

Notes on Cinematography, italics mine, p. 18

The idea of the “mechanism” is useful to the extent that it can disappear and be replaced by the purity of human emotion. The mechanism establishes a vocabulary of transparency, so that the human model, the kinetics, the germinal idea, can shine through clearly, resonantly. But it is through automatism that automatism is vanquished. Bresson’s Notes on Cinematography, the text of which was taken from the notebooks he carried with him throughout the preparation and shooting of his films, is written in an epigrammatic style that evokes the same axiomatic terseness of his directing method. Its style owes much to his literary tastes, and especially to the Pensées of Blaise Pascal, the 17th century French mathematician and philosopher with whom Bresson shares the predilection for pithy, elliptical ruminations. Toward the latter end of his life, Pascal was intellectually involved in the formulation of an apologia for the Christian religion, threatened as it was by theological divisions within the Church (between the Jesuit order and the burgeoning Port Royal movement) and also by the tide of intellectual and spiritual skepticism that would announce the approach of the Enlightenment era. Among his proofs for the substantial benefits of reaffirming one’s faith in God and religion was the concept of “the Machine,” a mysterious term used by Pascal to denote the ineluctable instinct of habit and “automatism” in human beings. For Pascal, the human mind is also a machine conducted by the whims and strictures of habit:

For we must make no mistake about ourselves: we are as much automaton as mind. As a result, demonstration is not the only instrument for convincing us. How few things can be demonstrated! Proofs only convince the mind; habit provides the strongest proofs and those that are most believed. It inclines the automaton, which leads the mind unconsciously along with it.

Pensées, p. 821

Pascal makes a subtly Cartesian distinction between the “automaton” that resides in the human being, and that part of the human mind which separately identifies its emotional/intellectual life. One part of the human model is reached through automatism, or in Bresson’s terminology, via the “mechanism,” while the other half is defined by the mind, which is persuaded by the mental processes of faith and free will. In a “Letter showing the usefulness of proofs, by the Machine,” Pascal presses the point further:

Faith is different from proof. One is human and the other a gift from God. The just shall live by faith. This is the faith that God himself puts into our hearts, often using proof as the instrument. Faith cometh by hearing. But this faith is in our hearts, and make us say not ‘I know’ but ‘I believe’.”

Pensées, p. 7

It is remarkable that Pascal’s biblical citation (“Faith cometh by hearing,” Romans 10:17) presages the sense-ability with which Fontaine ultimately arrives at his liberation: the sense of sound/hearing. We have by this point arrived at the film’s suspenseful conclusion. Fontaine has finally put his prison-break plan into effect, only this time he has another man joining him, a young prisoner named Jost who was suspiciously installed in Fontaine’s room on the very day Fontaine had been officially condemned to death. The climax of the film begins with the introduction of Jost, who first appears (symbolically) dressed half in German garb and half in French. His attire causes deep unrest and suspicion in Fontaine, for the latter believes the young man is a possible German informant. Will Fontaine share his plans with Jost or must he kill him to evade detection? After a more or less tense and thorough examination, Fontaine takes the young man into his confidence — this act of voluntary faith, following Pascal’s distinctions, is something akin to Fontaine’s believing the young man at his word. In any case, Fontaine’s salvation is only more so enhanced by his decision to save another: strength and faith in community.

Fast-forward to the scene where Fontaine and Jost wait in silence on the roof, listening to the deep and profound sounds of the night and the rhythmic motions of the prison complex. Darkness and the threat of detection looming everywhere, the tension is nearly unbearable, pushed to the foreground by Bresson’s decision to enhance the strength and sharpness of each sound they make, as they creep across softly crunching gravel or when they sit in agony and wonder what the origin of a specific creaking in the distance might be. Having come this far to an open place outside the restricted scope of his cell, Fontaine has no foresight as to what lies in waiting for him past a hundred yards from his cell. Freedom gains a new visual metaphor: the human model transcends the mechanism which brought him into being, by disappearing from sight.At this point in his search for the actual, he is confronted with its spectre: ontologies are no longer situated in the concrete use of his instruments, but dispersed invisibly in the dangerous cadences of unseen guards walking to and fro on the grounds below, or in the distant call of a train passing at night. No longer the automaton who methodically scraped down the end of a spoon for days in order to harness the power of a chisel, Fontaine is faced with the “despair of uncertainty” which Pascal so vividly describes, a phenomenal realm of crippling doubt that can only be overcome by the invisible instruments of pure unyielding faith — because “faith cometh by hearing.” Fontaine (literally) encounters a threshold separating him from liberation and actuality, a chasm formed by the outer prison walls and the high roof, below which a prison-guard circles around on a bicycle, as it were, like a clockwork mechanism. The obstacle saps his spirit. Fontaine delays, hours pass, the dawn is already near at hand, while Jost waits by his side. It is only at a moment of perfect spontaneity, hovering over the mechanistic universe embodied by the methodical passing of the guard on a bicycle, that Fontaine (literally) takes the Kierkegaardian leap of faith. He achieves his purpose: a triumph over automatism by virtue of the automaton’s thoughtless gesture — faith demonstrated in the beating heart of a concrete action.

The end-scene, staggering in its surge of emotion, swells up in a repetition of Mozart’s “Kyrie Eleison” and consummates in a strong hug and whisper of joy shared by the two freed men. They march away from us, almost forcefully against a powerful instinct to run madly, and walk into a sudden drift of fog that consumes the camera eye, while disappearing from the prison-house of language into the site of the actual. Freedom gains a new visual metaphor: the human model transcends the mechanism which brought him into being, by disappearing from sight. The body-in-kinema has finally escaped to a life freed from the fragmentation of history and scenario. The mechanism has vanished, and in its place stands a miracle: the perfect film.

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