A Man Escaped opens with a shot of two hands that seem to be in awe of their freedom. Their initial movements are modest. They acclimate themselves with their newfound agency. They twist. They turn. And then, deliberately, they begin to strive for something more. Reaching for the handle and unlatching the door, they wait. When the moment presents itself, they burst into action. They throw the door open. They run. They attempt to escape. Moments later, they are returned to captivity.
It is the film in miniature. The final shot of the film echoes the first, the hands replaced by people. We know they aren’t caught, the narration clearly emanates from the present, but the parallel is there. The hands’ eagerness to liberate themselves and their subsequent capture is echoed by Orsini’s impetuous escape attempt later in the film. Roger Ebert saw the film as Sisyphean, Bresson admiring man’s ability to persevere in the face of certain failure. It’s an apt analogy for the majority of Bresson’s work, but also lurking within A Man Escaped is the idea that careful observation is necessary for proper preparation and that without it we are doomed to repeat our failures. Running parallel is the idea that abandoning all caution and taking the initial plunge is often the most difficult part of achieving anything, being able to identify the moment when preparation gives way to procrastination.
It has taken me four films to come fully to terms with Bresson’s cinema. It is indeed a cinema of careful observation, a cinema of austerity that makes Ozu seem frivolous and Tarr ostentatious by comparison. Ebert claims that he “can’t think of a single unnecessary shot in A Man Escaped.” I would go one further. There are no unnecessary camera moves, no unnecessary edits, no unnecessary adornments or emotions. It is a cinema as economical as it is ecumenical. The initial effect can be alienating, gone are the concessions to the audience we’ve grown accustomed to even in foreign and art house cinema. But as you spend time with Bresson you learn he doesn’t so much eschew these things as transcend them. Casting aside all that is unnecessary to connect directly with the basic truths of human experience. With A Man Escaped, I was able to free myself from my preconceptions of what I wanted, or expected, Bresson to be and love him for who he is. I am eager to revisit Pickpocket and Balthazar. Like the hand reaching for the door, I desire more.