Saturday, February 28, 2009

a man escaped, by robert bresson

For the last few weeks, Film Club has been interested in movies that present strategies—some successful, some not—for weathering the forces of cultural oppression.

At a certain point, when a film has amassed a sufficiently complicated set of interrelated strategies, I think we can officially say that it is actually depicting a scheme. We have good reason to perk up here: the development of a scheme is a great narrative device, and, in the hands of a competent filmmaker, a deeply satisfying one. Think of films like Rififi, Man on Wire, and Oceans 11: very different films, but each one is built around a scheme, and as their schemes unfold they each yield similiar pleasures.

To this list we could add this week's pick, Robert Bresson's A Man Escaped (1959). The plot is simplicity itself. A police liutenant in occupied France is imprisoned by Germans. He intends to escape. That's pretty much it. He is planning this escape literally every second we see him on screen, starting when he's being driven to the prison. Before we even see his face we see him trying to figure out if he can get out of the car and make a run for it:

It's not the most successful attempt:

So, OK. He chalks this up to "if at first you don't succeed" and carries on. The next attempt, made from within the belly of the prison, is going to have to be more complicated than a simple jump-and-run. But that's OK: the more complicated the scheme is, the more enjoyable it is to see enacted.

This hinges, of course, on a filmmaker who is willing to visually represent the details as they unfold. To his enormous credit, Bresson lavishes loving attention on these details. There are passages in this film that are practically like an Instructables video on How To Break Out of Jail:

Part of the reason that Bresson can spend so much narrative time on examining these details is that he rigorously strips out any element of the narrative that doesn't have to do directly with the protagonist and the plan. It's not hard to imagine a less assured filmmaker building in a villainous German character, as a way of establishing their threat level: Bresson just takes it as a given and moves on. A less assured filmmaker would likely show us the other prisoners being executed: Bresson just relies on word-of-mouth, and the occasional sound of machine-gun fire.

This may sound like its short on visceral thrill, and, it's true that we're not dealing with Oz here. But Bresson has a different goal in mind: he wants to put us in the head of our protagonist, to impress upon us the "thrill" of the smallest details. Bresson is right that, to a prisoner, something subtle like approaching footfalls or the quickest glimpse of a weapon can hold enormous menace:

...and he is right that, to a prisoner, the smallest utilitarian object can convey enormous advantages:

...can be, in fact, a source of hope and courage:

This goes all the way down, in Bresson's conception, to finding a splinter of wood that is the correct size for one's purposes:

When we begin to discuss the ways in which the quotidian can be charged with enormous meaning, we begin to move out of the realm of filmmaking, and into the realm of spiritual or mystical belief. (Bresson himself has been quoted as saying "The supernatural is only the real rendered more precise; real things seen close up.") His religious belief has been amply discussed elsewhere, and it's really beyond the scope of this blog post, but I will say that by the point in the film where one character refers to incarceration as a way of moving into a state of "grace," I'm prepared to believe it. (Especially impressive: the film has invested this observation with the weight of truth through craft, rather than through the easy application of sloppy sentimentality.) This film makes a great introduction to Bresson; I hope to watch more of his films in the future.

Next week: Film Club member Tiffanny E. writes "I wanted to explore more the idea of being imprisioned but avoid actual jails ... so I am picking The Diving Bell and the Butterfly." Stay tuned~

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