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The French director Robert Bresson is generally considered to be a true auteur. Or rather the director about whom the term was coined or at least defined. A man who made his own films and did not care shit what other people thought of them. True, Erich von Stroheim did not care shit either, but Robert Bresson was so arty in that way most normal people understand arty. Stroheim was just arrogant.
I watched a documentary about Bresson and it struck me that when people talk about incomprehensible and intellectual highbrow French movies it must be Bresson they are thinking of. He seemed to be deliberately cryptic and obsessing about principles and ideas that are too exotic for the rest of us. That sort of attitude tend to be repulsive to the mass audience, but excites movie critics and movie intellectuals, either because they actually understood it or because they are afraid that other people will find out that they did not understand it.
A year ago or so I watched “Journal d'un curé de campagne” and I found very little to love. Most of it was incomprehensible, what I did understand I did not like much and the protagonist was a fool.
Now I have watched my second Robert Bresson movie “Un condamné à mort s'est échappé” (A Man Escaped) and that was a radically different experience. I liked this one a lot and many of those weird ideas Bresson had actually makes sense in this movie. Dare I call it a little masterpiece?
First of all this is a super tight story. In about one hundred minutes this is about a guy who wants to and finally does escape from a prison. From the outside it sounds impressive that such a simple story can take so long, but not when you are in it. By focusing narrowly on this story Bresson gets so deep into it that it really works.
Fontaine is arrested by the Gestapo in 1943 and imprisoned in an infamous prison where we are told 7000 people died during the war. From the outset it is clear that Fontaine wants to escape. He tries and fails already on the way to the prison and the experience makes him a lot more cautious about his next attempt. Of course the fact that prisoners are summarily killed means that you want to keep your head low. Fontaine establishes small lines of contact, through knocking on the walls, letters lifted out of the window and whispered talk during the daily wash-down.
He never knows exactly what is going on and field of view is always limited. In fact his main sensory input is what he hears and so we often see him on his bunk just listening. This is entirely in line with Bresson’s ideas of limited view and actions taking place outside the frame. There are many sounds and they are all important, but we rarely see the source. The result is that we are subjected to the same sensory input as Fontaine. That also enables us to feel his nervousness, the claustrophobia and the increasing need to get out, made urgent by the death sentence he receives with twenty minutes to go.
The claustrophobia is particularly noteworthy. I was often reminded of the movie “Das Boot”, where the submariners are listening to the pings and cracks of the enemy destroyers while they are stuck inside a small barrel. Fontaine’s situation is entirely the same.
Because of these elements the movie manages to keep up an impressive tension level on par with Hitchcock, the usual measure of such things. Those hundred minutes went surprisingly fast.
Prison escape movies usually have that in common that they are very inventive. The prisoner has to work out an escape plan not anticipated by his captors and that means something novel. This is also the case here. Fontaine has to be resourceful, detail oriented and imaginative. He is all that, but focus is not so much on his actual achievements as on his need to do this. It is the only thing going on in his mind, probably the one thing that keeps him sane.
Based on what I now know of Bresson I am surprised there is not any more religious motives in this movie. They seem to be essential to him and for “Journal d'un curé de campagne” they take over completely, rendering the movie practically absurd if you are not entirely into religion. I have read that “Un condamné…” have religious motives as well, but I fail to see them. Instead there is a lot of psychology, which of course can be understood and religion without the mysticism.
I would not say I have converted to a Bresson fan. From what I see of his later movies I am a bit worried. Not exactly the kind of movies I look forward to. But “Un condamné…” is really good and absolutely worth a watch.