Robert Bresson’s second film, A Man Escaped, begins with a prelude of ruthless, unimpeachable clarity as totalizing and blunt as the film’s title. A man, Fontaine (Francois Leterrier), is trapped in a car, the camera perilously perched at the level of his hands, which threaten to open the door of the vehicle. We pan left to his fellow trapped compatriot, presumably another member of the French Resistance to be sent, like Fontaine, to a Nazi prison. We cut to Fontaine’s view of the front of car, dissected by two Nazis in the front seats claustrophobically denouncing Fontaine’s view to freedom. The door opens and Fontaine runs, but the camera stays trapped on the prisoner next to him, sullen and stagnant and aware that escape is futile. Fontaine is denied agency, rendered passive by a camera that refuses to follow him toward escape. When he arrives at the prison, Fontaine will be sequestered into angular frames, torn to bits by characters who pass in between him and us, secluding him in the frame and denying his supremacy as a character. His face will be forever denied to us by a camera that moves not with him as a friend but against him, around him, as an agent of destruction.
In less than five minutes, the rigor mortis of isolation has fully cemented itself into our unconscious, Fontaine rendered pliable and submissive in a summation of what will become Bresson’s bane for decades: accusations of nihilism. Yet here, the nihilism is purposeful like a scalpel rather than brutalizing like a sledgehammer. It isn’t layered on top of the film so much as stitched in when appropriate, as contrast to what will emerge as arguably Bresson’s most humanistic film, as well as his most formally precise. The lie to the passivity of Fontaine is given by the film’s continued reclamation of Fontaine’s blasted hands as agents all their own. Bresson’s style defies naturalism and pursues a more dictatorial, spartan aesthetic of unvarnished purpose that all centers on the relationship of the hand to the screen
This aesthetic is laminated in shots of hands, Fontaine’s hands mostly, which ascend the ranks from passive observers to active instigators of humanity and communication as the film goes on. No director has ever so lovingly explored the possibilities of the human hand as a vehicle for connection, from the beginnings when Fontaine learns to communicate with a fellow prisoner via his hands until his eventual escape plot coalesces around the delicate, diligent dance of the human hand. In this body part, Bresson finds a lexicon for humanity at once intimately tactile and materialistic in a Marxian sense – emphasizing the relationship between the hand and materials of everyday life as well as the hand as machine – and something more transcendental. It is no shock that the film begins with a religious chorus of voices, but when your voice is denied you, Bresson finds in the hand an instrument of humanism and even the work of God.
Tellingly, the religious hum dresses a credits sequence that begins with a deliberately whimsical scrawl written by Bresson himself, a cheeky precedent for a film all about the human hand as it introduces itself to the world, as it authors our individual existences. Bresson’s style then emphasizes a disconcerting form of individualism, rejecting conventional “body shot” discourse and the violence of cinema replete with facial close-ups for a cinema that posits the human’s primary connection to the materiality of the world – its hands – as its chief form of resistance. Even in the otherwise traditional shots of Fontaine clasping prison bars, Bresson defies conventional entrapment by drawing our attention toward the hands that threaten the bars rather than toward the face sequestered behind them. The bars themselves are grasped much like the film’s many other earthbound objects, and they’re all dressed up in a presentational garb, carted out before us with clear close-ups of their materiality. With the spiritual music foregrounding the film and providing the final word after the title has been fulfilled, it is as if Bresson is rejecting the typical religious emphasis on otherworldliness and instead provoking us to think of humanity’s relationship to and use of the materials of the world as our divine savior and path to retribution.
The fitful hand movements don’t sermonize though, nor do they detain the dejection and despondency otherwise prescient in the film’s vacant, blank view of Fontaine’s face. It is of note that the Nazis themselves seldom appear in the film; their hands occasionally do, threatening Fontaine much as he threatens their imprisonment of him. But the totality of the Nazi entity is more assumed than insisted upon in the film; the tormenters are never human in the film, but instead unknowable objects stripped clean in Bresson’s harsh amalgam of off-screen space and free-floating, densely layered audio that fractures into shards of raw, unscrupulous noise at moments of emotional revelation.
The overpowering loneliness of the film saves the ascetic style from bargain-bin realism; there’s something more poetically focused about A Man Escaped’s refusal to cater to excess or abandon, instead proposing that escape is found in tunnel vision that necessarily denies any peripheral vision, any semblance of human confrontation, from the mind as it drills into the hand-clawing-into-the-wall before it. A Man Escaped is a film about hands moving, twisting, scraping, and freeing; like Fontaine, it has no time for anything else, especially people.
Which is to say, A Man Escaped intertwines loneliness and community, confinement and freedom, in the laser precision of its focus; the hands are not only means of escape, but they draw energy away from the world around them. Fontaine uses his hands to free himself, but all the while he is further siphoning off his world, denying his periphery, and reducing his existence to those very hands, trapped in closed frames by the camera, that failed him before when he tried to escape from the car. The layers of sound in the film always float just outside the consciousness in Fontaine’s tale, always diluted by his necessary, socially-structured inability to see a world outside of those hands. Bresson’s dialectic minimalism reveals more in what it withdraws from than in what it depicts, positing the director as the not so missing link between the Italian neo-realists and the French New Wave. It doesn’t show us extraneous material because Fontaine’s soul can’t handle any of that material.
In the end, the moral architecture of the film is such that internal entrapment is externalized in the reclusive nature of the camera and its inability to move beyond the narrow vision of those that are imprisoned. The impressionistic snatches of labor in the film conspire against a conventional narrative progression, rescinding the sanity of progress for a stymied, stagnant surfeit of order that soon stumbles into authoritarian commitment, as well as catatonia that masks itself under repetition. Rituals of escape become a prison for the characters just as they become a prison for the film itself, with military order excised in favor of the intimate order of dogmatic subsistence under the goal of escape at all costs. Fontaine expresses no joy or effervescence for his escape, instead approaching it with the businesslike candor of a workaday occupation, or the shuffling acceptance of a zombie; any sense of growth is extracted in a world where characters can only focus on the immediacy of the goal (Bresson’s world is not the theatrical, lingering, conversational world of, say, The Grand Illusion, a fellow prison escape movie that is all about human connection while this film firmly rejects, or at least reorients, such notions of collectivity for individualism instead). We begin to wonder if the very hands that would free him are in fact ensnaring him and the film with him in an inarguable insistence on hand shots above all else.
Yet it is only when Fontaine lets someone into his personal sphere that he sees the light and his hands become instruments of togetherness. Without affording his craftwork to others, Bresson may be implying, humanity’s gift for tactility is worthless. The Sisyphean nomenclature of freedom promises hope, but it may lie about true sovereignty as well. A man escaped, but what to? What matters to Bresson is not necessarily that he escaped, but that he achieved that noble goal with a new friend. Little moments of human connection abound in this film, but they all exist outside of contiguous space; the moments of speech are almost arbitrary and disinterested, almost a false means of communication. Instead, more telling connections ring true through the hands. Moments such as when Fontaine taps a march of courage on his wall for a soon to be executed prisoner in another cell, or when a young girl hand writes the word “courage” and hand stitches a necessary pin into cloth material, reveal a notion of continued humanity derived through craftwork and hand movement, not through speech. The hands, it seems, save Fontaine from seclusion and the tyranny of loneliness and return him to salvation in more ways than one.
It is telling that Bresson, no stranger to religious allegory or symbolism in his later days, has Fontaine discuss Jesus in the middle of his escape plot. Even so, it is only at the end that the religious hymn that opened the film kicks back in to send Fontaine, I suspect, not off into the world but away from it and to another plane of existence, as the transcendental blackness of the outside world at the end of the film suggests (the physical definition of outside space is irrelevant, as Fontaine has already escaped the shackles of his sedimentary, inward-looking worldview, and A Man Escaped is more about internal freedom than external escape). It’s as if the music is justifying his meditations on spirituality and craft, elevating them to one-in-the-same (Jesus was a carpenter after all). The prison, it seems, was a metaphor for an entrapped worldview, and only through diligent adherence to a craft, and in sharing that craft with others – finally acknowledging the outside world and admitting to one’s reliance on others for success – can one escape that world. All other prison-escape movies explore the need for the f word: freedom. A Man Escaped, on another plane entirely, deconstructs the very definition of that most timeworn, and often stale, word.