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.
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.
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.