A Man Escaped (1956) & Pickpocket (1959)

a-man-esc2

A double feature of new-to-me pictures from director Robert Bresson, different but both enjoyable, meaningful and minimalist.

In A Man Escaped (1956), resistance fighter Fontaine (François Leterrier) is imprisoned by the Nazis, is certain he’ll be executed, and spends his time devising an escape plan, making tools, gauging the loyalties and boosting the spirits of his fellow inmates. In Pickpocket (1959), small-time thief Michel (Martin Lassalle) hones his skill until he’s a daring expert, then slips up and gets caught to punish himself, which leads to his redemption.

a man esc

These are films stripped down to essentials, stories about men in desperate situations and the actions they take up to get them through. In both films, diligence, an activity, work–even when illegal–is something that keeps them alive, and gives them purpose until they can make it to something more lasting and fulfilling. It’s all they have left when everything else has failed, lost meaning or is (as in prison) forbidden and impossible. In both film, the men’s task and skill is the sole focus of their energy, a compulsion that becomes an art, a passion and an expression of defiance against death or insignificance. Fittingly, Leterrier and Lassalle give excellent understated, almost blank performances that only suggest reasons and motives unrelated to the main action (like why Michel won’t go see his dying mother), and keeps the focus just on their current goal.

That stillness is a necessary poker face to protect them from the authorities always watching, to keep them from being jailed or executed. Michel has to get nose-to-nose with his marks, look them in the eye and stay cool if he’s going to unbutton a blazer and slide a wad of cash out of a pocket. Fontaine has to be quiet as a mouse as he scrapes the panels loose from his door, refashions his bed springs and lantern frame into grappling hooks and rope, and sneak out at night researching his escape route. For both, stealth and calmness is key to survival, and only the viewer knows from their voice over narration the stress they really feel (both films have scenes where the men note how hard their heart pounds, Fontaine tries to still his with both hands).

And all that work that makes up the bulk of these two movies, is wonderfully authentic, mesmerizing and suspenseful; you’re glued to long, silent scenes of chiselling, braiding, exercising nimble fingers, even just thinking and staring. When, in A Man Escaped, Fontaine and his young new cellmate Jost (Charles Le Clainche) take all night to cross the prison rooftops, and spend long stretches staring down at sentries, then a guard circling the yard on his squeaky bike, it’s almost unbearably tense. In Pickpocket, it’s delightful to watch the team of thieves sweeping silently through a train station, picking it clean like a swarm of locusts, smoothly taking purses, wallets, and watches, passing the prizes to each other, dumping the empty accessories, and in one amazing instance, returning the emptied wallet to its owner’s pocket as he passes by them a second time. Michel can be excused for thinking that kind of pickpocketing skill makes him “extraordinary,” above the rules and morals that guide common people, and that he’s too good to get caught. When he inevitably is nabbed, his worst suffering comes not from the bars or cell, but the idea that he let his guard down and made a mistake.

pickp1

Among the many common elements: gestures of defiance in circumstances where that’s all the power they have left, with Fontaine refusing at the last second to hand over his pencil, though being caught with it would mean death, and Michel confessing his crimes only to claim he’ll deny it later, just to be difficult. Both men are in “cells,” Fontaine’s in prison and Michel’s in his teeny spartan room, with Bresson depicting both sitting on their cot in nearly identical poses, deep in contemplation and being marched out periodically, whether in Fontaine’s case by Nazis for his daily wash and walk, or Michel by his pal for a social break and visit with Jeanne (Marika Green), for whom he’ll go straight. And that’s yet another common thread in these movies, a hopeful, uplifting ending that allows both men to break free of their respective prisons.

pickp2

Advertisements

8 thoughts on “A Man Escaped (1956) & Pickpocket (1959)”

  1. It was very interesting to read this, and your piece rightly takes into consideration Bresson’s attentiveness to detail, which is always admirable.

    But I find these two movies very unequal. Great as Bresson is, I find a lot of ups and downs in his body of work–in some movies he is so wonderfully contemplative and stylizes experience of the world in a way that is all its own, but at other times this same style and the presumed spiritual drive behind it (an intriguing aspect, given how many Bresson characters end up committing suicide, increasingly in his later work) can become pretentious and plays in a dull and hollow way for me.

    Of his 13 films, A MAN ESCAPED is one of his very best, perfectly wrought in every way and only surpassed by the uncommonly sublime AU HASARD BALTHAZAR among all his works (and that falls exactly in the middle chronologically). The type of performance by non-professional actors Bresson favors is perfectly represented by Leterrrier. The ending is a hard-won victory for the protagonist, at once real and spiritual, so this movie supports my more positive comments above and I wouldn’t add much to what you say about it.

    But PICKPOCKET (his next film!) is opposite of this for me and in line with my more negative comments above. The spirituality and redemption seem laid on and not born within the material, and Lasalle, unlike Leterrier, seems blank to me. I can name dozens of 1950s Westerns in which the redemption of an outlaw or otherwise errant hero (for example, FACE OF A FUGITIVE, from this same year of 1959) plays more convincingly and in more gracefully modulated, unpretentious works of art. It is telling that Paul Schrader, one of the most affected and unendurable of later American directors, copied the end of PICKPOCKET in AMERICAN GIGOLO, and it is barely different and intended seriously but plays like inadvertent parody.

    So PICKPOCKET is an exactly opposite position of A MAN ESCAPED on my own Bresson list. It is next to last, marginally more compelling than the unexpectedly trivial FOUR NIGHTS OF A DREAMER (based on Dostoyevsky’s WHITE NIGHTS!–though I hasten to add that UNE FEMME DOUCE, also from Dostoyevsky, is one of Bresson’s most beautiful films). I don’t want to totally dismiss anything Bresson did and don’t mean to do that, just to say we shouldn’t look at him uncritically. But I just wish there were any director now so caring at every moment of image and sound–compared to today’s films, his all seem hand-made.

    1. Your comment was interesting to read, thanks so much! My first 2 of his movies, I liked them both, especially the detail and focus. They are so different with the similarities really stood out to me watching them together, seeing some of the same imagery, lines, etc. I’ll be exploring more of his (and more French/Italian of this era in general) so I appreciate these insights, gives me ideas on where to go next and what to look for. Thanks for reading!

      1. I do believe you will want to see them all eventually. It’s not so many and you will have your own responses and preferences. I suggest DIARY OF A COUNTRY PRIEST would be a good one to go to next, also one of his best and representative of where he was going in his work–it was the first one that I saw and his first with a non-professional lead. AU HASARD BALTHAZAR is my favorite, as I said, and if I’m not mistaken it is kind of a consensus choice now. But I think it will be a more meaningful first viewing of it if you know his work better, and if you see it too early it might spoil some of the others. I wouldn’t have guessed these were the first two that you saw because you had such a clear sense of what he is doing.

        1. Again I really appreciate suggestions like this, thanks and noted–it’s fun getting into these now, because I look at them not as intimidating Great Films (like I used to), but just movies that I enjoy (or not) at first, and once I see more I’ll have a forest, more perspective and ways to compare. During Pickpocket I played my usual casting games and thought how interesting it would have been as a US movie starring someone like Monty Clift.

  2. Unlike Blake, I have only seen a few Bresson films and while I like both, I think A MAN ESCAPED is probably the better film of these two and probably the better entry point for anyone interested in watching Bresson. I mostly agree with Blake, but think the ending of PICKPOCKET does have a certain impact, although perhaps it is somewhat tacked-on, or maybe it just seems that way to me. I haven’t explored all the supplements, but others have said that the Criterion edition of A MAN ESCAPED is one of the best “film school in a box” releases ever. I will definitely watch more Bresson. Great reviews, as always, Kristina!

    1. A Man Escaped was really something– I didn’t mention the great use of Mozart which added so much to the emotion. Thanks and looking forward to checking out more as suggested!

Comments are closed.