A Man Escaped opens with the indelible image of a pair of restless hands belonging to a French resistance officer named Lieutenant Fontaine (Francois Leterrier). His face is inscrutable and impassive, concealing his calculated attempt to flee from the escorted prison transport vehicle. He reaches for the door handle, retreats, then reaches again. At a momentary distraction of a crossing railcar, he seizes the opportunity, but is immediately recaptured, and is severely beaten by the German guards for the attempt. Imprisoned and condemned to die, Fontaine finds the courage and determination to escape his certain fate. Based on a true account by Andre Devigny, A Man Escaped is a visually minimalist, emotionally austere film about friendship, hope and perseverance. Despite the bleak and cruel circumstances of the Lyon internment camp, the innate humanity and interminable hope of the prisoners surface as they struggle for meaning beyond their captivity. An imprisoned priest (Roland Monad), driven to despair without his Bible, is encouraged by Fontaine’s offer of a pencil, writing down his religious passages, and forming a clandestine ministry network among the prisoners. Terry (Roger Treherne), a complete stranger who passes under Fontaine’s window each day, offers to smuggle his notes through his visiting daughter. Blanchet, a silent, suicidal old man imprisoned in an adjacent cell, is profoundly affected by Fontaine’s compassion and tenacity, restoring his will to survive. Fontaine methodically spends every waking hour devising equipment for his escape. As Fontaine’s actions become increasingly suspect to the prison guards, he places his trust in his recent cell mate, a young prisoner named Jost (Charles Le Clainche) to assist him in the escape.
Robert Bresson’s spare imagery and poetic realism depict the harsh existence of the prison camp without emotional manipulation or overt symbolism. The objective distance of retrospective narration divorces the precise and factual revelation of the story from the bias of perspective associated with the tension of his singular objective. The dialogue between the prisoners is minimal, reflecting their largely solitary confinement and introspection: finding redemption through purpose. Furthermore, several close-up shots of Fontaine’s hand pervade the film: exchanging notes and useful items between prisoners, chiseling the door panels of his cell, crafting his escape equipment. These images reflect the film’s underlying theme of activity. In essence, it is through human action – distractive ritual, meaningful creation, compassionate assistance – that the soul is redeemed. Denied their freedom and under the pervasive specter of death, the prisoners find a reason for continuing the struggle, and deny their oppressors the ultimate triumph over their souls.
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