A Man Escaped (Bresson, 1956)

Bresson’s film is one of the best literary adaptations I have seen.

One of the underrated pleasures of being a cinephile is sharing a first viewing experience of a classic film with a friend or loved one who is viewing it for the first time. Sometimes new viewers see new things that you have missed, and there is a pleasure in that. Other times, they might confirm your own or others’ observations, and there is definitely pleasure in that.

Recently I had the opportunity to screen Robert Bresson’s masterpiece, A Man Escaped, with two viewers who had never seen it before. One described it as a “rich, dense” film, one which a viewer could watch several times and each time notice new details or features that enrich the viewing experience.  She (and I) like the quality in visual art of works that might look different from a distance and close up. A Man Escaped fits well into such descriptive categories, and while its richness is not exclusively a function of its being a literary adaptation, its fidelity to details from Andre Devigny’s book unquestionably contributes to the density the viewer noticed.

I would like to focus on one small example of where the film incorporates details from the book without necessarily dwelling on it and without–as so many modern films do–underlining them for the audience. I would argue that it is in Bresson’s refusal to spotlight or underline significant details that allows the viewer to experience the atmosphere of the film as realistic rather than cinematic.

Early in the story, Devigny relates breaking a large splinter from his door while trying to disassemble it:

With the help of a razor-blade I whittled a little wedge, shaped more or less like a tenon, and fixed it on the bottom right-hand side of the removable piece. (The break at the end was somewhat slanting and irregular, which helped me.) Then I cared a corresponding mortise-like hole in the lintel itself, and cut away the worst of the splinters to form a flush surface. The loose wood was now inserted in its place; it pivoted out on the home-made hinge like a shutter. I pressed it back and further secured it with two tiny flat wedges inserted between the lintel itself and the top edge of the frame. This kept it firm, but not inconveniently so. When I had shaved away all the splinters I chewed some paper into a pap, rubbed it on the floor to blacken it, and puttied it into the cracks that still remained. Then, with my pencil, I disguised the joins I had made still further. Fortunately the wood was stained an extremely dark brown. (57-58)

This scene is roughly approximated in the film, though it is condensed.  Many of the scenes are condensed, yet it is surprisingly detailed about the mechanics of the escape, which lends it an air of credibility and tension. It is perhaps one of Bresson’s greater strokes of seemingly counter-intuitive genius. Whereas many lesser directors might fear that too much detail of this sort would slow the pace of the film and bore the audience, the accrual of detail here has just the opposite effect–it keeps the reader grounded in an awareness of the sheer number of details that had to align in order for the escape to be successful. (In this way, too, Bresson, replicates the book, which is constantly moving between the spiritually metaphysical and the tangibly physical.)

I always seemed to have a towel that needed drying then.

It is not so much the patching of the splinter that caught my attention in screening the film this time, but a two second fade which shows Fontaine (as Devigny’s character is called in the film) attaching a peg to hold his towel and, not coincidentally, conceal the part of his door that might reveal splintering: “From this day on, inmates and guards alike could see (if they were interested) a towel hung carelessly up to dry over my door during morning exercise. I always seemed to have a towel that needed drying then” (58).

The concern over the door closing suddenly takes up making a total of 20-30 seconds of active screen time, but it is omnipresent throughout. Fontaine stands by the door when getting or returning food. In one particularly effective scene, he has received a care package with some clothing in it. After the guard inspects the package to make sure there is nothing in it that will be compensated, he leaves Fontaine to revel over it. Fontaine’s reverie over the unexpected, miraculous gift, is not so deep that he neglects to stride quickly to the door to catch it from shutting hard before returning to his package.

"With any luck I'll always be able to shut it myself."
“With any luck I’ll always be able to shut it myself.”

In the book, Devigny’s intent is expressed through dialogue with another prisoner:

“You might get caught.”

“If the door was slammed really hard, perhaps. But I’m on the look-out. With any luck I’ll always be able to shut it myself.” (64)

Bresson’s film does replicate some dialogue, and it uses voice-over narration to share with us insights on the narrator’s state of mind. I’m not normally a fan of voice-over narration, but here it is effective precisely because Bresson does not merely use it as a lazy short cut to tell the viewer what to look at or the significance of what she has just seen. Sometimes, the narration is used as a form of foreshortening, to mention something that happens after the scene concludes, such as when the narrator discusses falling asleep. Occasionally, however, it is used for explication, such as when Fontaine mentions that he deliberately exaggerates his injuries as a means of trying to trick the guards into beating him less severely.  The general principle appears to be that voice-over is used to reveal what cannot be shown (usually a state of mind) rather than highlight what has already been seen.

In Notes on the Cinematographer, Bresson appears particularly anxious to remind himself (and us) that film is its own media and does not have as its purpose the reproduction of a theatrical experience or technique: “The truth of cinematography cannot be the truth of theatre, nor the truth of the novel, nor the truth of painting. (What the cinematographer captures with his or her own resources cannot be what the theatre, the novel, the painting capture with theirs)” (20).

Is it wrong, then, to think of A Man Escaped as a great literary adaptation? I don’t think so. The word “captures” in the above quote is telling. Just as the word “reproduction” is repeated in several other aphorisms in the same section as something to be avoided, the verbs “capture” and “create” appear central to Bresson’s conception of what the cinema is trying to accomplish. When we think of these two terms simultaneously, they seem to be in tension with one another, since we tend (wrongly, I think) to assume all creation is (imaginatively, at least) ex nihilo. What is being created is a situation to be captured, not a reproduction to be preserved. In another note, Bresson writes, “No actors. /(No directing of actors.) No parts. / (No learning of parts.) No staging [….]” (14). Obviously, this does not mean that Bresson never used actors nor that they never learned their lines. What it does suggest, I think, is that the truth of the situation was better captured when the actors inhabited the situation rather than performed. The density, the thickness of A Man Escaped comes not so much from a slavish attention to surface details of the plot but to a careful recreation of a state of mind. The surface details don’t so much create the fidelity as result from it, bearing witness to a deep understanding of the source material and an affinity with it.

Bresson, Robert. Notes on the Cinematographer. Trans. Jonathan Griffin. Los Angeles: Green Integer, 1997.

Devigny, Andre. A Man Escaped. 1958. Trans. Peter Green. Guildford, CT: Lyons, 2002.

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