Cinescapade - Bresson's world of sound



The world 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.

Bresson does 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.

The sounds 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.

The world 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.

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.

The third 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.

Bresson's 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.


- Acquarello, Un Condamne a Mort S'est Echappe ou Le Vent Souffle ou il Veut (A Man Escaped or The Wind Bloweth Where it Listeth,
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- 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 Vol.156 no.3.
- D'un cinema l'autre. Notes sur le cinema francais des annees cinquante. Editions du Centre Pompidou, Paris, 1988.
- Richard Goldstein, Andre Devigny, Dies at 82; Escaped Gestapo 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,
- David Thompson, A Biographical Dictionary of Film, 3d ed. Knopf, New York, 2000.
- Francois Truffaut, The Films of My Life, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1978. P.193-196
- David Walsh, French Filmmaker Robert Bresson (1901-1999), 20 January 2000, World Socialist Web Site.


© Briana Berg, 2001