According to Paul Schrader (1972) quoted by Joseph Cunneen in Robert Bresson: A Spiritual Style in Film: “Bresson’s use of the everyday is not derived from a concern for ‘real-life’ but from an opposition to the contrived, dramatic events which pass for real-life in movies.” (in Cunneen 2003: 22) Cunneen himself suggests Bresson’s approach, forces the spectator to an extra alertness; it is almost as if we have to work out the specifics of the escape for ourselves, facing the same difficulties as Fontaine. (ibid: 61) In his Notes on Cinematography, Bresson gives the advice that the cinematographer should, “Accustom the public to divining the whole of which they are given only a part. Make people diviners. Make them desire it.” (Bresson 1977: 54)
If the playing of the Kyrie from Mozart’s Mass in C minor at the start of the film and the idea of an escape from death were not enough, the religious connotations of the film gradually become clearer.3 In a sense we have an extended meditation on predestination and free will. When the Pastor says, ‘Read and pray. God will save you’, Fontaine’s response is ‘He’ll only save us if we give him a hand’. This idea of man as capable of actively determining his own fate seems to be further reinforced when Fontaine discusses the position of the men in his prison block. ‘We were a hundred unfortunates awaiting our fate. I was under no illusion about my own’, he says. There is a slight pause and because we have come to see him as a condemned man we think we know what is coming next, we expect him to be fatalistic and accepting, but instead he surprises us concluding that his fate will be, ‘to escape’. Even this though does not bring us to a conclusion in the debate on predestination: does this confidence mean he simply ‘knows’ he is predestined to escape, or that he is predestined to escape because he retains this determination and continues to exert his freewill in moving towards his goal? Despite at times displaying this sort of certainty, at other times he is beset by doubts.
To begin with in his relationship with the person in the neighbouring cell, Blanchet, he is the one who offers help and reassurance; although he knows this also helps him (‘It’s a comfort to be looking out for others’, he tells Blanchet). But by the end it seems Blanchet has become the dominant party; they are in their cells next to each other, each speaking to the other without being seen by the other, and like a priest in a confessional box Blanchet says, ‘Have faith in your hooks and ropes and in yourself. You have doubts?’, and receives Fontaine’s response, ‘What’s hard is taking the plunge’.
Throughout the escape itself Fontaine continues to have doubts and uncertainties. ‘I had to act but I couldn’t’, he says at one point. The whole thing becomes a series of hesitations followed by sudden leaps of faith as he and Jost succeed in moving stage by stage towards the outer wall of the prison. Along the way Fontaine disturbingly takes on the role of a God-like arbitrator of life and death. Looking down from the height of the roof to a guard patrolling below and effectively standing between the would-be escapees and their goal, he decides, ‘This man had to die’. Perhaps, therefore, in more ways than one it is fitting that the film ends with the two men walking to freedom to the sound of the opening to Mozart’s Mass, since in the order of service the Kyrie eleison (‘Lord, have mercy’) follows the confession of sins.
1. Lyons, the third largest city in France, was a key centre for the French Resistance, or Maquis, within Vichy France during the Second World War.
2. The way in which Bresson’s ‘soundscape’ embellishes the story and creates meaning would form a whole study in itself, as might elements of homage such as that to Jean Vigo’s Zero de Conduite (1933) as Fontaine and Jost scramble across the prison roof towards the end of the film.
3. Is it too much to suggest the series of shots through the film of Fontaine looking up towards the ceiling of his cell, towards the skylight and towards Jost on the roof above him carries some reference in Bresson’s mind to Psalm 121 (‘I will lift up mine eyes’)?
Cast and Crew:
[Country: France. Production company: Gaumont and Nouvelles Éditions de Films (NEF). Director and Screenwriter: Robert Bresson. Cinematographer: Léonce-Henri Burel. Editor: Raymond Lamy. Cast: Francois Leterrier (Fontaine), Charles Le Clainche (Jost), Roland Monod (Le Pasteur), Maurice Beerblock (Blanchet), Jacques Ertaud (Orsini), Jean-Paul Delhumeau (Hebrard), Roger Treherne (Terry).]
Robert Bresson, Notes on Cinematography, trans. Jonathan Griffin, New York: Urizen Books, 1977.
Bert Cardullo (ed.), The Films of Robert Bresson: A Casebook, London: Anthem Press, 2009.
Joseph Cunneen, Robert Bresson: A Spiritual Style in Film, London and New York, Continuum, 2003.
Paul Schrader, Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1972.
Brian Price, Neither God nor Master: Robert Bresson and Radical Politics, Minneapolis, MN, University of Minnesota Press, 2011.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.