This weekend, The National Gallery of Art in D.C. will continue with its month-long retrospective highlighting the work of filmmaker Robert Bresson. Three of his films will screen this weekend. One of them, A Man Escaped or: The Wind Blows Where it Wishes (Un condamné à mort s’est échappé ou Le vent souffle où il veut) (1956), is probably most close to his heart, as it centers on a prisoner of war who hatches a plan to escape from his confines. Bresson himself was also held as a prisoner of war for over a year during World War II.
The story, as the opening titles indicate, was taken from the memoirs of André Devigny, a man who escaped a prisoner of war camp in Lyon in 1943. We follow Lt. Fontaine (François Leterrier) of the French resistance as he is being driven in a car to prison. He nervously eyes the car door and the officers next to him as he waits for the vehicle to slow down. When it finally does, he makes his great escape. The officer seated next to him doesn’t even blink. In the background, we see Fontaine get recaptured and quickly shuffled back into the car. The officer thanks his comrades and they continue on to the prison. The future for Lt. Fontaine doesn’t look very bright.
Fontaine has an unending optimism, even if many of the other inmates have lost all hope. Like The Shawshank Redemption (1994) or, indeed, all prison movies, the protagonist latches onto any small item he can find to use as a tool. Every waking thought is devoted to his escape. It gives him something to keep himself occupied with. A few of his fellow inmates could use an all-consuming distraction such as this.
Fontaine isn’t shy or secretive about his plans. Many in the prison know the scheme he’s got brewing, and most just stand back and hope for the best. The man whose cell is just across the hallway from Fontaine’s is eager about the plan, particularly in the idea that he might get to come along. But Fontaine is slow and methodical, reworking his plan and second-guessing himself, and the man across the way can’t wait any longer. He tries to escape, but doesn’t get far. A few days pass, and Fontaine believes he can hear the exact moment when his cohort is executed. Things look bleak for Fontaine. They look even bleaker when he is forced to share his cell with a 16-year-old French deserter named François Jost (Charles Le Clainche). Jost is seen getting chummy with one of the German guards. Should Fontaine let him in on his plan? Or should he kill him when the time to escape comes?
So few films, even by today’s standards, are able create and sustain such an unnerving tension as A Man Escaped. The film isn’t slow, but it makes you impatient throughout in the anticipation of what might be around the next corner. There is a lot on the line for Fontaine, and when his death sentence is handed down, it only becomes more difficult to endure. Bresson was a master filmmaker, and many of the tricks he utilized in this film would inform his next great work, Pickpocket (1959). Though the voiceover drives the narrative, it is Bresson’s camerawork which does the storytelling, creating a claustrophobic pressure that demands liberation. It’s a unique and brilliantly crafted film.
A Man Escaped will play The National Gallery of Art’s east building concourse on Sunday, March 25th at 4:30. For more films in the Gallery’s program, visit their website here. A Man Escaped is available on DVD, and a good copy exists which can be viewed with a subscription to Hulu.