of sound in Bresson's A Man Escaped
(Un Condamne a Mort s'est Echappe).
France, 1956. Directed by Robert Bresson, written by Robert Bresson,
based on a memoir by André Devigny. Starring François
Leterrier, Charles Le Clainche.
In French, 99 minutes. Gaumont; New Yorker Films.
A Man Escaped
is Robert Bresson's fourth feature-length film. The story centers
on Fontaine (François Leterrier), a member of the French
Resistance, and recounts his escape from a German prison in 1943.
While there are many possibilities to render such a story, Bresson's
approach is very unusual. The movie focuses almost solely on Fontaine
and on the details of his meticulous work to escape; any element
beyond those events, like the atrocities of imprisonment or Fontaine's
past are only hinted at. Bresson gives sound a very important
place in A Man Escaped. Instead of subordinating sound
to the image, he enhances it in such a way that the viewer not
only sees Fontaine's world but fully hears it as well. This use
of on- and off-screen diegetic sounds allows a more realistic
approach, creating Fontaine's world and his ordeal in the viewer's
mind while paralleling his experience. The heightened sense of
sound accentuates the feelings of confinement already elicited
by the perception of closed quarters and the focus on details
or parts of objects. Fontaine's voice-over narration then provides
the story's narrative thread while the non-diegetic music punctuates
the story, adding a more abstract dimension to it.
not use sound to accompany or enhance the images (by sound, I
am referring here to all diegetic sounds except dialogue). In
A Man Escaped, everyday noises and silence are as important
as what the viewer sees, if not more. Bresson often associates
a sound with an image, later on discarding the image when the
sound recurs. Image and sound have been linked in such a manner
that the mere sound evokes a precise image in the viewer's mind.
Each image is essential, and distinct sounds accompany or represent
it. Bresson believes that "when a sound can replace an image,
cut the image or neutralize it. The ear goes more towards the
within, the eye towards the outer." At the beginning of the
film, we witness Fontaine's first attempt to escape while he is
being driven to the prison. There is no music, no dialogue, but
an alternation of silence and the low rumble of the car. When
Fontaine makes a break for it, we do not see him running away
from the car or being caught. We hear his footsteps, the footsteps
of his pursuers and some gunshots, while the camera remains on
his empty seat. Yet we know what happened, because we heard it
so clearly, and we construct an image of it in our head that is
more powerful perhaps than if we had actually seen the attempt.
Bresson even goes further: when Fontaine kills a guard on the
night of the escape, we never witness the scene. Again, the camera
stays put, showing the angle of the wall where Fontaine has disappeared.
This time we neither see not hear the action: there is only the
sound of a passing train covering the noise of the struggle until
Fontaine reappears. The lack of visuals, the absence of the sounds
of the scuffle, associated with the darkness and the action we
know he had to commit, make the scene even more intense.
inform us of what is going on around Fontaine, outside his and
our range of vision. Off-screen sound is not used to direct the
viewer's attention or to cue him to an event. Indeed, some off-screen
sounds are never shown or explained. Like Fontaine, we hear the
gunfire of executions, but never actually witness these events.
Many sounds recur throughout the movie, becoming familiar patterns
and triggering our expectations. When we hear the Germans' voices
in the hallway or the rattling of keys, tension mounts. But these
sounds do not always indicate that someone is coming, which has
an unsettling effect.
of sound Bresson presents is paralleled by the film's images.
We do not know what is outside of the prison walls. There are
no establishing shots or shots that help us construct an idea
of the space. Like Fontaine, we do not know what surrounds these
walls, what to expect on the outside. This restricted perspective
compels the viewer to focus on the inside: perceptively, on the
interior of the prison and emotionally, on its oppressive feel.
There are many close-ups of Fontaine's hands as he constructs
the tools for his escape or as he passes messages to other prisoners.
Similarly, everyday sounds are emphasized, as are the guards'
voices and the sounds relating to imprisonment: the locks click
and rattle with a metallic sound, the guards' steps reverberate
on the stone floor. These sounds convey a feeling of solitude,
confinement, and isolation. Bresson communicates these feelings
through sounds and images rather than emotions displayed by the
actors. By intensifying noises that we usually pay little attention
to, sound becomes very important, the way it is for the prisoners.
Isolation and silence make each sound stand out. One can compare
this to a certain extent to the way sound is magnified at night
when one is walking around at home when everyone else is sleeping.
For Fontaine, sound takes on an extreme, vital meaning. Each noise
can mean life or death. If he makes too much clatter or if he
does not hear the guard coming, his escape plans will be exposed,
which means certain death. The implications this has on the mind
can psychologically amplify sound. Bresson does not rely on sensationalistic
techniques to make the viewer feel this. Sounds that are unrealistically
altered in many films are more naturalistic in A Man Escaped.
When the guards hit Fontaine, there is no added sound effect turning
the blow into a loud thud. The blows sound very flat, the way
they would in real life. We hear very much like we do in reality.
Thus Bresson recreates Fontaine's reality for the viewer.
like the prisoners, relies on the surrounding sounds to know what
is happening. As with the images, dialogue is reduced to the essential.
There is no superfluous dialogue to give insight into character
traits or past events, just as there is no ensemble of establishing
shots. Again, this replicates the situation the prisoners are
in: they are not allowed to speak and can only exchange basic
or vital information. Bresson introduces a voice-over narration
by Fontaine that replaces dialogue and functions as a narrative
thread. Without this narration, it would be difficult to understand
A Man Escaped. The voice-over narration by Fontaine does
not start immediately. The movie begins with Fontaine's attempt
to escape from the car and his subsequent beating. When he is
thrown in jail, we hear the first words of his narration: "I
knew, I felt, that I was being watched, I did not dare move."
This introduction gives us insight into what he is thinking. The
narration is in the past tense, which indicates, as the title
does, that Fontaine has escaped. This leads the viewer to focus
on the process of the escape, instead of wondering about the outcome.
Again, as with sound and image, the narration mostly relates to
the details that are crucial to Fontaine's escape and explains
them. But the narration does not tell the viewer about his past
or about anything else than the escape. Elements pertaining to
Fontaine's mental state, as well as to time and space are gleaned
from the voice-over and the dialogues. The narration, like the
sounds and the images, is another element that enables the viewer
to construct a narrative.
important aural element in A Man Escaped is the non-diegetic
music. The excerpts of Mozart's Mass in C minor only arise at
specific moments. Music, here, is not used to trigger the viewer's
emotions. It emphasizes elements of the story, almost like an
abstract commentary. The music appears at the beginning, even
before the credits, as we read the words "10 000 men suffered
here under the Nazis, 7 000 died" etched in stone; it reappears
at the end, when Fontaine and his cellmate Jost (Charles Le Clainche)
have escaped. The music continues for a few minutes after the
last scene has ended, on a dark screen, reciprocating the film's
beginning. Throughout the movie, it punctuates every point of
the escape: Fontaine's first thoughts of escape, another prisoner's
attempt to escape and his failure, Jost's arrival, jeopardizing
Fontaine's plans, and their successful escape. The music often
recurs when the prisoners are together. It highlights how Fontaine's
escape is made possible through hope, persistence, trust and cooperation
-the help of his fellow prisoners. The non-diegetic music in A
Man Escaped can therefore be understood as a symbol of human
solidarity and hope. It is also representative of human suffering
and how the spirit can transcend it. The use of music at the beginning,
underlining the fate of thousands of prisoners, and at the end,
when Fontaine, Jost, and all the other prisoners through them,
are victorious, reinforces this idea. This spiritual point of
view, brought forward by music, is paralleled by the movie's many
allusions to God. Fontaine tells the priest, "God helps those
who help themselves", while the subtitle, "The Wind
Bloweth Where it Listeth", emphasizes how Fontaine's fate,
like the fate of every human being, ultimately depends on God's
will. Bresson's use of music as meaning transcends its conventional
use, adding a spiritual dimension to the story.
work can be compared to a puzzle made of sounds, images, music
and narration. Unlike most movies, sound is the foundation of
the film and allows the viewer to experience the story more fully
and perhaps more emotionally. It would be easier to understand
A Man Escaped without watching it than to see it without
diegetic sound or without voice-over narration. Bresson lets us
piece together the elements he lays out for us and construct our
own meaning of to story, thus giving the viewer the rare possibility
in cinema to be an active spectator.
Un Condamne a Mort S'est Echappe ou Le Vent Souffle ou il Veut
(A Man Escaped or The Wind Bloweth Where it Listeth, www.filref.com/directors/dirpages/bresson.html
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Vague (1945-1958). Petite Bibliotheque des Cahiers du Cinema,
- Shmuel Ben-gad, To See The World Profoundly: The Films of Robert
Bresson, Cross Currents, Summer 1997, Vol.47 Issue 2.
- David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, Film Art: An Introduction
(5th ed.), Robert Bresson, Notes on the Cinematographer
- Richard Corliss, Stations of the Cross, July 17, 2000, Time
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cinquante. Editions du Centre Pompidou, Paris, 1988.
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Prison. February 27, 1999, New York Times.
- Sarah Jane Gorlitz, Robert Bresson: Depth Behind Simplicity,
- Kent Jones, Robert Bresson: An Introduction, 1999, The Film
Society of Lincoln Center.
- Jacques Lourcelles, Dictionnaire du Cinema. Les Films. Editions
Robert Laffont S.A., Paris, 1992.
- Jaap Mees, Robert Bresson: One of the Greatest Filmmakers Of
All Time, www.6degrees.co.uk
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New York, 2000.
- Francois Truffaut, The Films of My Life, NY: Simon & Schuster,
- David Walsh, French Filmmaker Robert Bresson (1901-1999), 20
January 2000, World Socialist Web Site.