Un Condamné à Mort S'Est Échappé
UN CONDAMNÉ À MORT S'EST ÉCHAPPÉ
(Le Vent souffle ou il veut; A Man Escaped; The Spirit Breathes Where It Will)
Director: Robert Bresson
Production: SNE Gaumont/NEF (Paris); black and white, 35mm; running time: 102 minutes. Released 1956, France. Filmed in France.
Producers: Jean Thuillier and Alain Poiré; screenplay: Robert Bresson, from the account by André Devigny as published in Le Figaro Littéraire, 20 November 1954; photography: Léonce-Henry Burel; editor: Raymond Lamy; sound: Pierre-André Bertrand; art director: Pierre Charbonnier; music: Mozart; conductor: I. Disenhaus.
Cast: François Leterrier (Fontaine); Roland Monod (Le Pasteur); Charles Le Clainche (Jost); Maurice Beerblock (Blanchet); Jacques Ertaud (Orsini).
Awards: Cannes Film Festival, Best Director, 1957.
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* * *
In the words of Jesus to Nicodemus in the third chapter of St. John, "the spirit breathes where it will." This alternate title for the film speaks the director's intentions with greater clarity, for here Bresson illustrates the dictum that heaven helps the man who helps himself.
Basing his screenplay on a true incident involving the successful 1943 escape of André Devigny from Fort Monluc prison in Lyons just hours before he was to have been executed, Bresson fashioned an escape film which has none of the embellishments of other films on that subject. Disavowing grand scale action sequences and focusing on the itimate details of the process of escape, Bresson elucidates the how rather than the why, the details of the physical process rather than the psychological motivations. Beginning with fact and striving for authenticity, Bresson employed Devigny as an advisor, secured permission to film in the actual prison, and gained access to the ropes and hooks used by Devigny in his escape.
Having made two films in which performance and dialogue were central, Bresson began to develop an alternate narrative strategy with Diary of a Country Priest. In this and later films he disavowed all notions of theatricality, refusing to employ professional performers and insisting upon writing his screenplays in a stripped down, elliptical form. In Un Condamné, a voice-over monologue almost entirely replaced diegetic dialogue.
The protagonist, here named Fontaine, is the focus of the film, and yet the performance of the man who portrays him is only partially responsible for the central impact of the main character. Using first person voice-over narration and shifting the dramatic emphasis to a close examination of manual dexterity, Bresson was able to eliminate any dependence on the standard conventions of vocal and facial expression to impart dramatic emphasis. In so doing, and by avoiding a persistent use of point-of-view shots, Bresson was able to impart a spiritual dimension, making the spectator aware of the workings of fate as well as those of the individual. Fontaine's actions during the process of escape are thus transformed from a manual enterprise to a collaboration between the physical and the spiritual.
Bresson creates an "escape" from traditional narrative form as well by the transformation of subjects and objects, creating meaning for those performers or objects which did not previously exist; certain items are transformed into the tools of escape, prisoners are transformed into free men, non-actors are turned into credible screen characters.
Visually alternating between scenes of solitary incarceration and minimal communication, Bresson used sound to allude to the possibility of freedom. In line with his belief that the ear is more creative than the eye, sound is used sparingly, generally to conjure up, for both Fontaine and the spectator, images that refer to ideas associated with escape: the guns of execution, the rattling of the prison guards keys, and the sound of a distant train. In the final moments of the film, as indicated by the title, Fontaine does realize his quest.
Less a film about the French Resistance, Un Condamné is an evocation of Bresson's belief in man's existence as being governed by a combination of predestination and human will. Elucidated without embellishment, this unusually suspenseful film celebrates the mystery of fate and the power of individual will.