“This story is true. I give it as it is, without embellishment.”
That’s an understatement of an opening remark. A Man Escaped (Criterion) is a mesmerizing meeting of opposites: a prison escape thriller directed by the austere, introspective Robert Bresson. Based on the memoir by Andre Devigny, a member of the French Resistance imprisoned and sentenced to death by the Gestapo during the German occupation, Bresson (who was himself a German POW) transforms Devigny’s daring escape into an ascetic film of documentary detail. Kept in a tiny stone cell with a high window and a thick wooden door, the prisoner (renamed Fontaine in the film) makes himself intimate with his world–every surface of his room, every sound reverberating through the hall, and every detail of the prison’s layout that he can absorb in brief sojourns from his cell.
Bresson defies expectations of action cinema by focusing on the patience and perseverance of the planning and every minute detail of the preparation. He magnifies every detail with insistent close-ups and detailed examinations of every step, from constructing and hiding ropes and hooks to painstakingly carving out an exit in the heavy cell door, and he a pair of fellow prisoners become a sort of Greek chorus discussing his chances and progress. Shot on location at the actual prison in Lyon, Bresson painstakingly recreates every detail of his ordeal while denying us all outside of his perspective and elements extraneous to his purpose. It’s beautiful, almost meditative, and strangely rousing, a drama where the slightest gesture carries the weight of a confession. In such austerity the tiniest of details take on a monumental significance.