It should come as no surprise that even for the most stalwart of cinephiles there are always enormous holes in their film education. Sure, I may have seen both CRANK films, the BATTLESTAR GALACTICA film and a large portion of the works of Baz Lurhman, but before this latest round of Lightbox’s cinemateque retrospective, I’d never seen a film by the celebrated Robert Bresson.

Cerebral, bathed in Catholic notions of repression and guilt, and eminently French, the moniker of a “Bresson film” speaks to an ascetic, insular, quiet production full of introspection and deliberation.

Take A MAN ESCAPED, my introduction to his work. We learn right from the title what the film’s conclusion is, reemphasized by a simple title card that tells us the events are based on reality. A man is arrested and tries to unsuccessfully escape from his captors as he’s driven to prison. The rest of the film is spent constructing implements of escape, while a sonorous voice over details in specific, diary-like fashion the travails of the operation and the fears underlying the eventual action.

From a visceral point of view, the film by contemporary standards is almost laughable. Except for a few scenes of violence that are shown off screen, distancing the audience even more, we’re given little more than the ruminations of a man in a desperate situation. It’s almost as if the stereotypical “building things to escape” moments from MCGUYVER were drawn out to feature length, with a witness interview overlayed upon the simply shot reconstruction of events.

Nonetheless, for an entire generation of filmmakers, from Schrader’s TAXI DRIVER to Haeneke’s suburban horrors, Bresson is a kind of touchstone, an antidote to the slavery of plot in favour of character and pace. The myriad “deliberately paced” films of Tarkovski, for example, owe loads to Bresson’s choices. The Russian is credited as saying, “Robert Bresson is for me an example of a real and genuine film-maker… He obeys only certain higher, objective laws of Art…. Bresson is the only person who remained himself and survived all the pressures brought by fame.”

A MAN ESCAPED serves as a template for Bresson in a number of other ways. For one, he chose to use a non-professional cast (the lead drawn from the Philosophy courses at Sorbonne). The actual escapee that’s at the center of the film was on hand to ensure absolute realism, while Bresson himself had been a prisoner during the war and brought his own experiences to bare.

The point of these films, emphasized by Tarkovski’s quote (and own oeuvres) is to emphasize the human at the heart of the work. The plot is there to drive character, explicitly, and as such its simple, archetypal form lacks any of the sizzle that other prison escape films provide. The point, it’s made clear, is less to do with the actual escape, but the way the man copes with his own fears and guilt-ridden conscience. Analytical, cerebral, it’s a far cry from THE GREAT ESCAPE, even down to the use of a melancholic Mozart mass in a minor key as the basis for the soundtrack rather than a triumphal march.

Currently, the highest rated film on the IMDB is also a prison escape film with use of extensive narration. In cotrast to Bresson’s film, SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION is a fable, an uplifting tale of aspiration dripping with layers of catharsis. For Bresson’s, by the time the escape occurs, the screen going to black and the word FIN emblazoned, there’s no sense of surprise or even relief. Instead, we the audience are treated as a kind of witness, the story provided in as dry and detailed a way as witness testimony.

Bresson’s films, then, show us another way to do these types of works, to investigate the small moments, to obsess about details. At its best, A MAN ESCAPED is about the shelf the prisoner stands upon, the wire he uses to wrap the cord, the lantern he breaks to be able to fashion a knife, the pencil he squirrels away above his shitbucket. These microelements in total add up to something that is indeed quite extraordinary – it’s a thriller conceit emptied of all thrills, yet in the cold light of presentation we begin to appreciate the various decisions, and more critically the ideas that lead to those decisions, as the work unfolds. There’s a dose of documentary throughout, but there still is clearly strong use of cinematic elements to make us enter into the world Bresson is creating, a heightened, literary reality that unfolds as a kind of of testimony.

The film will be a challenge to those more schooled on visceral and kinetic cinema. If one sees Bresson’s choice not as an antidote to Hollywood but an alternate path, the works of Bresson can add a different flavour to this genre of prison escape film, providing a unique take on the narrative in a way that, despite it’s laconic nature, still proves to be enjoyable

 

The Bell Lightbox is showing a number of Bresson’s films in this second part of the retrospective, starting February 9th with A MAN ESCAPED and running until March 30th. Check TIFF.net for details