Where Forgotten Films Dwell

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Monday, November 2, 2009

Un condamné à mort s'est échappé ou Le vent souffle où il veut (A Man Escaped or: The Wind Bloweth Where It Listeth)

Directed by Robert Bresson

Priest of Leiris: Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again. The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.

Ever since I was a child, I have suffered from insomnia. Its severity has continually flucuated all throughout my life. About two months ago, it began to get worse than it had ever been before in my life. So, one particularly restless night, I decided to try a new method of falling asleep: I would watch a film by Robert Bresson. Now, hold on. That doesn't mean that I don't like his work. I loved Les Anges du Péché (1943) and Diary of a County Priest (1951). But I have seen many of his other films and quite frankly, they are extremely boring. Oh, I can appreciate them. I understand the philosophy behind Bresson's work. I also understand that he has had an amazing impact in the world of cinema.

But for me, watching a movie by Bresson has always been a chore. Even the two aforementioned films that I liked required a great deal of energy on my part to sit through. His work is one of the best sleep medications that I have ever encountered. So, on this particular night when my insomnia was unusually bad, I decided to watch one of his movies, fall asleep, and then finish it in the morning. I went onto youtube and found one of his movies that I had not seen yet. With the impressive title of A Man Escaped or: The Wind Bloweth Where It Listeth, I thought that it would be the perfect remedy for my sleeplessness. I mean, how engaging can any movie that quotes the King James Bible in its title be?
Well, 99 minutes later, I was still wide awake. I stared at the screen with a look of disbelief. Not only had I seen a Bresson film straight through, but it engaged me just as much as any whizbang action flick. In fact, I was even more awake than I was when I started the movie. Such is the power of A Man Escaped or: The Wind Bloweth Where It Listeth.

The film is based on the memoirs of André Devigny, who was a prisoner of war held at Fort Montluc by the Nazis. Here, he is referred to as Fontaine. We are introduced to Fontaine as he is being transported to prison by the Nazis. Once inside, he sets about trying to escape. Since the title of the movie informs us that he will, eventually, succeed in his attempts to escape, it is the process that Fontaine engages in that captures the attention of the movie. Along the way, he forges quiet, yet powerful relationships with his fellow prisoners during the brief time that he is allowed into the courtyard.

But perhaps I am giving the wrong impression about this movie. This is not a movie about a ragtag group of prisoners trying to bust out of the joint. Instead, it is a quite, and intensly personal film about one man's struggle. While doing research for this review, I stumbled upon a phenominal review of the movie done by Pierre Pageau. I fear that anything that I will try and say will sound like plagerism, because everything that I experienced and felt about the movie was precisely summed up in his review. But, allow me to indulge in just one quotation:

On the question of filmic language Bresson, like Fontaine, likes precision. His frames are highly fragmented. His shots are tightly framed, an almost Eisensteinian style which states a preference for synecdoche: the part representing the whole. In A Man Escaped the framing of a door, partially closed (or opened), renders an even greater sense of entrapment.

In fact, the first time we see Fontaine, we are given a closeup shot of his hands. We see them tense up as he prepares to try and escape from his transport to the prison. When he begins to chip away at his cell door, all we see is the wood and his hands. The camera doesn't focus on Fontaine. Instead, it seems to focus on the door that is being dismantled. We learn about what goes on in the prison from what Fontaine can detect or overhear from inside his cell. The sound of boots informs us of guards. The sound of gunshots informs us of executions. The sound of tapping tells us that the prisoner in the cell next to his is still alive. But the film doesn't linger on these things any longer than it has to. They are just step-backs or breakthroughs in Fontaine's attempts to escape.

Indeed, the entire film centers on Fontaine's escape. When actions occur to other people, we never see them. When his fellow inmate Orsini tries to make his own escape attempt, it happens offscreen. All we see is Orsini getting thrown back into his cell and beaten. We are only allowed to see this because Fontaine manages to see it through his door. Just like Jack Nicholson in Chinatown, the camera only follows him; what he sees, we see. What he doesn't see, we don't see. In a way, this helps add to the claustrophobic effect of being in prison.

Ah, perhaps I should have mentioned this before. One of the reasons why this film is so good is that it feels so unbelievable authentic. Perhaps one of the main reasons was that Bresson was actually imprisoned by the Nazis as a member of the French Resistance. When we see examples of cruelty or great human courage, we wonder if maybe they recall incidents from Bresson's experiences. But no, these are based on André Devigny's experiences. In fact, the film goes through great pains to recreate Devigny's story. Devigny himself served as an adviser for the film. Bresson shot the film in the actual Montluc prison. And, most incredibly, Devigny loaned Bresson the actual ropes and hooks that he used to escape to be used as props.

But even if the movie didn't use real props, get filmed on real locations, or even be based on a true story, it would still be meaningful and powerful. In Fontaine, we see a universal character fighting a universal struggle: the fight for freedom and liberty. I want to mention Pageau one more time in this article. After you are done reading this, I hope that you will follow the first link below and read his essay (don't worry, it's not too long). He said that the first time that he ever saw this film, he was in college. He was immediately drawn to the film because he identified with the main character, Fontaine. Pageau also felt like a prisoner in his college environment, so Fontaine's struggle became his struggle. And indeed, everyone can identify with Fontaine. It is just a matter of whether or not we choose to fight back as well.



  1. First, thanks for visiting my blog. I, too, love this film. I was especially pleased that you discussed the opening, a remarkable sequence that is simple but filled with meaning. As for boring: Yes, Bresson takes his time. But, as a friend of mine noticed about Kubrick, "his movies aren't slow, they're leisurely."

  2. Yeah, but at least things HAPPEN in Kubrick's films!

    Just kidding!

    You'll have to forgive my naivety. This review was written almost a year ago. I have since gained a greater appreciation for Bresson and his style. I guess that I just wasn't prepared for how slow and methodical his films would be. But I still wrote this article because I felt that this film was worth talking about. Even if slow movies aren't your thing, you can't ignore its phenomenal beauty.

  3. I read the review and the Pageau link too. I too identified with the heroic element in the film---the sheer audacity to conceive and execute the excruciatingly prolonged and complex project, requiring perfection in planning and daring at each step, and gunfire ready to burst out any moment. It's a miracle that the escape came off.

    I once asked a renowned landscape designer whether stones can speak. His lightening response was, yes, they can, and sing too. In Bresson, the people are mannequins with powerful leashed emotions, and the insentient objects, be they wooden, metallic or indeed dancing hands, speak a poetry of their own.

    As for being boring, of course that has a grain of truth and that could be said of Bergman and Bunuel too. To quote from Francis Bacon:

    "Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention."


    Many movies one has to go armed with mountaineering equipment and the willingness to make the effort to reach the summit and enjoy the view. It becomes a permanent asset of the spirit. I prefer to invest my mind in the best that is in the annals rather than the latest petrifying edge of the seat (maybe sometimes, and I would not have missed Avatar for anything.

    Incidentally, does it constitute plasiarism to quote from another review with due credit, since I tend to do it once in a while?

  4. Not at all. I actually quote Roger Ebert all the time. Notice that I always have a "sources" list at the end of my articles. If you give credit, I don't think it constitutes plagiarism.