A Man Escaped (1956)
Directed by Robert Bresson
Through Thursday, January 26 at Film Forum
A Man Escaped is a perfect film. It is a film about friendship, an emotional reverberation directly struck for ten seconds only, late in the film; the rest of the film, with its aura of absorbed isolation, is in place to lead up to that momentary reveal. Bresson is a master of temporality.
Before that breakthrough, finally, of life, a WWII prisoner doomed to die fixates on the details of his planned jailbreak with bloodied yet fastidious obsession. Real life outside the prison, one of drama and ceremony, is glimpsed at in flashes. ("These things happen," is the comment on some scandal of married life betrayal. "In life," says another character after a long pause.) And a character in the yard is dressed for a wedding, while our hero wears the same stained shirt every day. His world increasingly narrows to the smallest detail, the difference between tin or steel spoons, between types of wood in his cell door, all noticed while looking down and plotting his escape.
Watching A Man Escaped is also an archeological project, because the basic structure, tone and even specific shots from Wes Anderson's Bottle Rocket—one of the most underrated of overquoted films—are revealed through viewing the Bresson, similarly a film about entrapment and friendship. While it's probably the funniest film in the Anderson oeuvre, what makes Bottle Rocket so affective are the tragic bones supporting all that hubristic absurdity. A Man Escaped, obviously an influence on that Anderson caper comedy, reveals the basic emotional elements of that tragic tone: the building-block images of entrapment, obsessive details of imprisonment, and the imagination and industry that will lead to a dreamed-of escape. Bottle Rocket travels in reverse, though, from escape (though a faked one, from a mental hospital) in the first scene, to Owen Wilson's hard eyes of resignation that there is no way out of prison at the film's end, which, like the Bresson inversed, is a startling shift in tone. Another Andersonian tic revealed to have its genesis in this Bresson is the acting style, temperance masking emotional turmoil. Yet, a comparison also reveals where Anderson falls flat, particularly in comparison to the master (probably) Bresson; Anderson can't structure a film to save his life. The meandering journey across imaginative, mapped-out otherworlds has become a structure of his own, but in watching this Bresson, or any Bresson, the art of filmmaking as the yoking of disparate bits into one cohesive line has very obviously no peer nor successor.