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Robert Bresson’s ‘Cinematography’: The opening scene of ‘A Man Escaped’ by Monish K. Das

“The things one can express with the hand, with the head, with shoulders! How many useless and encumbering words then disappear. What economy!”

“An image must be transformed by contact with other images… No art without transformation.”

“When a sound can replace an image, cut the image or neutralize it. The ear goes more toward the within, the eye toward the outer.”

“(Models) Movement from the exterior to the interior. (Actors: movement from the interior to the exterior.)”

““Cinematography is a writing with images in movement and with sounds.”

- Robert Bresson, ‘Notes on Cinematography’

Throughout his life and his filmmaking career Robert Bresson strove to make a particular kind of cinema which he defined as ‘cinematography’. The term is not to be confused with the work of the cinematographer (D.O.P in modern parlance). It is denotative of Bresson’s unique cinematic output and in general a particular attitude and belief in what cinema is and what it should be as a form of art. The singularity of his cinema is expressed through a series of major important stylistic features which mark the manner in which they delineate the establishment of his characters, their preoccupations, their conflicts and their goals. His insistence on using non-actors (models), the focus on their hands and gestures, his distinctive use of sound, the manner in which he constructs a scene with individual images and sounds existing only in relation with other images and sounds all act as signposts of a unique personal approach to the medium of cinema which relies heavily on economy of form.

All the distinctive elements of Bresson’s ‘cinematography’ are manifest in the opening scene of his 1956 film A Man Escaped. The film tells the story of a resistance fighter, Fontaine, who is imprisoned under death penalty in a prison in Lyon, France by the Germans during WWII. Fontaine is adamantly opposed to his imprisonment and certain execution. Throughout the film he plans his escape from prison which he does finally – his escape with a co-prisoner at the finale of the film accompanied by a rousing version of Mozart’s Kyrie from Mozart's Great Mass in C minor on the soundtrack hinting at the spiritual dimension of his escape to freedom. The film is based on the memoirs of André Devigny, a member of the French Resistance who was jailed in Montluc prison by the Germans during WW II.

Opening scene for reference:

The very first shot of A Man Escaped (excluding the prefatory notes and the credit titles) encapsulates the goal of the protagonist Fontaine. The opening shot also goes a long way in establishing the imagery and the principles of construction of the film. Two hands in close-up are make a palms-up gesture, they are then turned over and placed on the lap of man who we are yet see. The steady low grind of a moving car informs the viewer that the action is within a car and we also get to know that he is in the backseat when his left hand steadily slides towards the door handle, the camera panning slightly with the hand movement to show Fontaine’s little finger gently pushing the doorknob to confirm that the door is unlocked. The hand then returns to the lap and the camera tilts up to reveal Fontaine’s face. The shot continues with a slight pan towards the left to show a second man seating beside Fontaine; as this man’s eye’s glances down for a fraction of a second, the camera tilts in the same direction to reveal that the man’s right hand is handcuffed to the left hand of another man wearing a striped shirt who remains off-screen. The camera tilts up again and holds on to Fontaine’s face looking determinedly ahead to the road off-screen. Fontaine’s gaze prompts the cut to the second shot – a long shot of the road from his point of view (P.O.V.) in which we see the car approaching two cyclists while a dog runs across and out of focus shoulders of the driver and the other occupant of the seat in the foreground.


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Figure 6 (Shot # 2)

The opening shot of the film which has five movements and the contrast it posits – chained hands versus free hands– is connected to the dominant action of the shot – Fontaine’s stealthy moves to test the doorknob. Although we are yet to know the how’s and why’s of the protagonist and the characters involved it is clear that all are prisoners. Fontaine is the one who has the opportunity and hence looking for a chance to escape. The first action – the palms- up gesture – is the clear indicator of the state of being unrestrained hence the compulsion to act and seek freedom –his hands are free, hence Fontaine will seek a chance to use them and escape. The opening shot itself thus depicts the major theme of the film – escaping and Fontaine’s stubborn urge and determination to do so.

Fontaine’s escape from the moving car is preceded by a series of more than twenty shots which depict Fontaine assessing various situations that might offer him a chance to escape. The moment to the escape is built-up through a series of medium close-ups of Fontaine’s face showing his alertness to the changes in the traffic conditions which are inter-cut with close-ups of the driver’s hands shifting the gears, long shots of the road seen from Fontaine’s P.O.V., close-ups of Fontaine’s left hand moving towards and away from the doorknob and a single two-shot of Fontaine and his co-prisoner who exchange a meaningful glance. Technically the direct P.O.V. shots of the driver’s hands are incorrect but within the overall context of the images in the scene they do not cause any disruption because they fall within the ambit of Fontaine’s consciousness and his getting used to the car’s changing speed and movement.


Shot 1

Shot 2

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Shot 9

In a long shot of the road taken from Fontaine’s P.O.V. from the back seat of the car we see a horse drawn carriage slowly ambling in to front of the car. In a medium close-up we see Fontaine looking furtively at the doorknob. Taking cue from his glance, the next image is of his hand tentatively touching the doorknob followed by another medium close-up of Fontaine watching the traffic. Then comes another P.O.V. shot of the car getting closer to the carriage followed by a close-up of the driver’s hand shifting gears to avoid crashing into the carriage. This is followed-up with a shot from the backseat showing the car swerving to avoid the carriage and then drive on the clear road. Bresson now cuts to Fontaine’s hand which moves away from the doorknob after which comes a two-shot of him and his co-prisoner exchanging another knowing glance. The opportunity to escape does not fructify but the construction of the scene firmly establishes the relationship between the changing traffic conditions, the driver’s response and Fontaine’s actions vis-à-vis his attempt to escape from the car.

Thus far Bresson has established the basic look on Fontaine’s face (alertness) which links the traffic conditions to his hands, the hands to the door and to the action he is planning to perform. The look also infuses every shot of with the will of the prisoner and sustains the tension/suspense. This helps in expounding a second traffic condition and the consequent slowing down of the car exclusively through shots of Fontaine’s face, the driver’s hands shifting gears and Fontaine’s hand moving to and away from the doorknob. The shots of the road are elided – it is through the repetition of similar kind of shots we are made to realize that the car has slowed down but still Fontaine does not have the opportunity to escape.

Then comes the crux of the scene – Fontaine’s escape and its aftermath. First we hear the clanging of the trolley off-screen and this sound prompts Fontaine to lean a bit to the front and towards the door. As the off-screen sound of the trolley starts overwhelming that of the car Bresson cross-cuts to a P.O.V shot of Fontaine seating in the backseat of the car which shows the trolley for the first time. Cut back to Fontaine’s face with almost the same expression and in the next shot we see the trolley almost in front of the car. The sounds of the screeching tyres, the clanging bell of the trolley-car and the car reach a crescendo foreshadowing what happens next.


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S 6 (Shot 1 of Scene II)

As the car comes to a halt Bresson cuts to a two-shot of Fontaine and his co-prisoner. Fontaine takes a fraction of a second to assess the conditions and then gets out quickly – Fontaine has escaped. What happens on screen next is remarkable and exemplifies Bresson’s approach to cinema. Any other director would, perhaps, would now show Fontaine’s escape and its consequences on-screen. Bresson, however, keeps the camera firmly on the impassive face of Fontaine’s co-prisoner! Beyond his face, we see a car stopping in out-of-focus, a few people rush out of the car and start a chase. We hear the sound of Fontaine running and the heavy footsteps of his pursuers. A gun is fired, silence, people shouting in German come near the door, Fontaine is pushed back into the car, handcuffed and as he is being hit with a pistol a quick dissolve ends the scene and begins the subsequent scene which opens with a shot of Fontaine being taken out of the car in the prison compound.

This use of off-screen space and sounds is an important aspect of Bresson’s overall approach to cinema. It is a part of the aesthetics involved in realizing that unique style which is often concerned with the invisible implying what is deliberately not shown or what images can be replaced with sound or vice versa. It is also a stylistic choice which is very apt for a filmmaker for whom cinema is the art of creating rapports which transformsimages (and sounds) when one comes in contact with another image (or sound).

Comparing the opening of A Man Escaped with that of Bresson’s second feature film Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne(1945) it is apparent how much he has been able to discard what he termed as ‘filmed theatre’ and develop his very own vision of cinema – cinematography. Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne begins with an establishing long shot of people leaving a theatre, followed by a medium shot of a couple entering the back seat of a car and then a series of medium shots and close-ups as dictated by the conversation and reaction of the characters. This is an expository scene in the decoupage classic mode. The premise of the drama and the logic of the arrangement of images are presented through language and acting. A Man Escaped, on the other hand has no establishing shot per se, no dialogue, no acting in the conventional sense. The face of the actors and their voices are no longer the sole, privileged means of expression or registers of the content of the scene. Fontaine’s facial expressions are basically transitive in nature, directing the viewer’s attention not only towards his character but also to the conditions around him and his objects of interest both on and off the screen. His hands serve as a crucial index of intention and the means of the action that defines the scene. The hands do not complement what the face portrays but function on their own conveying information about specific actions and reactions. They do not duplicate what is conveyed by Fontaine’s face but replace acting, dialogue and facial expressions – Fontaine’s hands in a way becomes subject of the film itself. They also act as indicators of the subsequent actions that take place in the film.

Bresson, the minimalist distills the core of the scene and portrays the protagonist’s character and his indomitable urge to escape exclusively through images, sounds and the relationship that exists between the two through how they are arranged/edited. And in order to do so he has raised the arrangement of the visual and the audio tracks as well as the editing to a level which confirms his own expectations of ‘cinematography’ – ‘writing with images in movement and with sounds.’ Cinematography for Bresson implies doing away with language, acting in the traditional sense and narrating ‘the story’ through images framed and edited together along with strategically placed sound effects which render the action salient and heighten the viewer’s attention to the rhythms of shifts in the actions and ensuing emotions of the character/s. The placement of sound effects in the opening scene of the film confirms with another of Bresson’s principles – ‘let the cause follow the effect’. Consistent with this, the sound of the moving car precedes the fade-in to Fontaine’s hands, the sound of the horse hooves comes a shot before the horse-drawn carriage is seen and the trolley sounds during the Fontaine’s escape are heard before the first shot of the trolley itself.

The journey from the opening scene of Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne to that of A Man Escaped indicates the maturing of Bresson’s own ideas of what ideally cinema should be and how to eliminate the extraneous and thus arrive at a mise-en-scene which moves the spectator into an active mode of participation and perception analogous to the protagonists’ inner perceptions and external and internal conflicts. The opening scene of A Man Escaped marks a defining phase in Bresson’s goal of creating his own version of cinema - a cinema in the words of Pier Paolo Pasolini where, “everything concrete is mystical.”

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