A man involved in the French Resistance to German occupation during the Second World War, Lieutenant Fontaine, is captured and imprisoned in Fort Montluc in Lyon.1 He carefully and meticulously plans his escape, seeing the achievement of each stage along his journey towards freedom as a personal victory. When Jost, a young teenage prisoner, arrives in his cell Fontaine is uncertain whether to trust him and take him with him as he tries to escape or to kill him in order that he cannot raise the alarm. He chooses to take him along and together they succeed in escaping.
It is often remarked that the title of this film gives the full story, and in a sense it does. It immediately takes us to the end of the film, sums up what has happened, and almost suggests the 98 minutes of screen time has essentially amounted to no more than, ‘a man escaped’. As an audience our usual expectations of mainstream narrative film are, therefore, straight away challenged. And yet, when we do reach the end of the film it is not a man but in fact two men that walk away from the prison having scaled the outer wall and neither of them could have achieved this without the help of the other – ‘Had I been alone I might still be there’, says our central character. Cinematically, this is certainly a defiant title in that Bresson seems to eschew mystery, suspense and surprise; we know what is going to happen. However, although he does put aside a particular storytelling type of mystery, the film actually remains highly enigmatic as the French title reveals. ‘Un condamné à mort s’est échappé’ suggests this is going to be a film not just about ‘a man’ who escapes but about ‘a man condemned to death’ who escapes; a man, therefore, who escapes death. Or, the French suggests, adding further mystery to enigma, we could adopt another alternative title, ‘Le vent souffle où il veut/The wind bloweth where it listeth’, which if we don’t recognise it for ourselves the film will later tell us, is a quote from the Bible giving Christ’s words to Nicodemus (John 3: 8), but which we might also add, sounds rather like a pretty conventional piece of proverbial folk-wisdom. And so, a little reflection on the title means things are beginning to seem rather more complex than Bresson’s initial claim, given before the credits, that, ‘This is a true story; I have told it as it happened, without embellishment’, would seem to suggest.2
The opening credits to the film are presented against the background of a wall, as is apt for a film that is going to focus on the idea of a man feeling trapped and wishing to escape. During the film it is not simply that we know through spending so long with him that Fontaine is held in a small cell, individual shots are frequently composed in order to place Fontaine in an enclosed space within the frame. When he is taken to be questioned, for example, he stands facing the camera but with the blank backs of two German interrogators to either side, so that he is confined in the central section of the shot. Often we see him through the doorway of his cell so that the wall of his cell and the door take up most of the frame and he is held within a much reduced vertical space, again, centre screen. When, a third of the way through the film, he manages to get out of his cell by removing a panel in his door, we have a shot from outside the cell as his face emerges through the door but is boxed centre screen in light that casts heavy shadows on his face. When he emerges through the skylight for the first time he is similarly ‘trapped’ but this time in a diagonal, letterbox-like, opening across the screen. Each movement towards freedom exists within continued entrapment.
When we first see Fontaine he is in the enclosed space of the back of a car being driven to prison. Immediately the tension between being in such a space and wishing to get out of it is conveyed as he tries to escape. But before this happens at the very beginning of the film there is what seems when we first watch the film to be a strange shot that focuses on his hands. Although we only see the hands, Fontaine seems to be turning them over and inspecting them. In the film we will continually return to his hands as he works at making a chisel from a spoon, at chipping away at a door, at levering panels of wood in a door, at making rope, at shaping pieces of metal into hooks, and at other tasks he gives himself. What we are being returned to time and again by Bresson is the idea of work, of not being idle. Hubrard says later in the film, ‘You must keep busy. Write to try to stay sane’.
We are immersed in Fontaine’s world. Throughout the film, our focus on him is intense and unrelenting. In the car during the opening sequence there are street sounds but they are made to seem distant, as if we are in Fontaine’s mind as he registers things around him and prepares to try to open the car door. Bresson allows nothing to detract from this focus on our central character. For example, the brutality of the German occupation is given but it is expressed through filmic understatement in order to ensure it does not come to occupy the foreground of the film for the viewer; the pistol-whipping Fontaine receives after attempting to escape from the car blurs into a dissolve of him getting out of the car at the prison, and later there is a brief glimpse of a guard picking up a wooden shovel handle to beat him before we cut to Fontaine being carried on a stretcher to his cell.
These sorts of brief visual glimpses not only invite the viewer to become their own storyteller, padding out the information they are being given through the use of their own imagination, but actually demand that the viewer should do so. Similarly, the dialogue is composed of short, sharp sentences that give the facts and leave room for the viewer’s imagination: “My cell barely measured three metres by two. I soon learnt to communicate with my neighbour. He was waiting to be shot any day now. He was 19 years old.”
Bresson’s key requirement of us is that we should imaginatively engage with Fontaine’s situation. We have to remain alert to clues, as Fontaine has to remain alert to possibilities of escape. When halfway through the film we see Fontaine watching a guard winding a mechanism on a wall, for example, we have to fill in for ourselves that this mechanism is connected to a skylight and that this could form the next stage in Fontaine’s escape; we have in other words to be in tune with Fontaine’s thought processes.