A Man Escaped has often been called Robert Bresson’s masterpiece. I’m not sure about that claim. Lancelot du Lac is formally richer; Au Hasard Balthazar is more moving. But the director’s breakthrough prison escape film is, if nothing else, a perfect experience. Every shot counts, every composition works. The pace is flawless. Bresson uses off-screen space in ways that have since been extensively copied. Even unique modern masterpieces owe their debt to him, such as Lucrecia Martel’s The Headless Woman, about a housewife who might or might not have run over a child with her car, and who spends much of the running time walking in a daze, feeling guilty about the victim she might or might not have left behind on the road, terrified by the noises and figures at the borders of her (and our) perception.
In A Man Escaped, there are many things our protagonist cannot see, and we don’t see them either. This is a powerful narrative mechanic. Bresson insisted, in his writings, on the need for cinema to remove the corset of theatrical tradition, and his productive use of off-screen space (among other techniques) allows him to do that. The camera captures just a small fragment of a larger world.
Now, in theater, there is always an unseen narrative universe beyond the limits of the stage. But, as critic André Bazin argued, that kind of spatial limitation is to be expected in theater. We’re not, however, used to such limitations in cinema, and when they’re imposed on the medium, the effect is more claustrophobic, more impactful. Even if the protagonists are stuck somewhere, the movie can always – and very easily – cut to a new camera angle, so that we can be rescued from the architectural prison. When this doesn’t happen, we grow restless and terribly aware of our entrapment. Bresson knows this only too well. He never rescues us. He forces us to share the prisoner’s perspective, his limited vantage point, his ignorance about what surrounds him and what’s beyond his cell. It’s this that makes A Man Escaped so persuasive and why we identify so much with the protagonist.
Like many art house classics, it can now remind us of a videogame. As much as interactive entertainment tries to resemble Hollywood blockbusters, its real kinship is with this kind of austere, slow-moving fare. Which is what the latest so-called art games and walking simulators, like Gone Home and especially Dear Esther, have understood, and what earlier masterpieces, like the Thief games, had grasped. According to videogame historian Jimmy Maher, back in the 80s, Steve Meretzky, the man responsible for the epochal text-adventure A Mind Forever Voyaging, once sat down to breakfast and had the following epiphany: “Interactive fiction does setting incredibly well, perhaps better than it does anything else. Intricate plotting it does painfully and reluctantly and usually clunkily. Therefore why not make the player not so much a participant in the plot as an observer?” Scrap typical character development and three-act structures. Let’s do setting. Let’s focus on space, on exploration, on movement. On observation.
Bresson did something similar, but in cinematic terms. There’s little psychology in A Man Escaped. Yes, there’s a constant voiceover. But the protagonist’s thoughts are pragmatic: what he sees, what he needs to do, what items he has, how he will get past the Nazi security guards. Interactions with other characters always serve immediate needs. What’s most important, for the protagonist, is mastering his surroundings. Only after doing so might he deliver himself from the encroaching walls. The plot, or what can be called that, is structured around his growing familiarity with the prison’s layout. Transcendence needs physicality, needs a tangible, “realistic” environment. (Paul Schrader, in his study of the director, points out how Bresson highlights the surface of “everyday reality” precisely to undermine it, to make us doubt it. Just like our hero, in this film, wishes to undermine the very defenses he so restlessly studies with such zeal.) We need to feel the material world in our bones before we can imagine anyone’s emancipation from it.