Death, destruction, and … hope
Robert Bresson (1901-1999) is at once the most and least accessible of auteurs. Far from prolific, Bresson directed a mere 13 features over a four-decade period from 1943 to 1982, making him an ideal candidate for in-depth study. But this pleasing scope is deceptive: some of the films — The Trial of Joan of Arc, Four Nights of a Dreamer — have been almost impossible to see, rarely revived and unreleased on DVD, though that situation is being remedied now by a few companies dedicated to making all of his work available. Two recent DVDs from New Yorker, A Man Escaped and Lancelot of the Lake show Bresson at the peak of his form. These films come from different decades and are in fact very different films that share a particular interest in the body as constantly under siege, threatened by forces determined to destroy it and, in the process, the spirit that lies within it.
Bresson has been seen as many things, from the curious moniker of “Christian atheist” to the more intelligible, though not always accurate, fataliste. Calling him an optimist seems almost blasphemous given the horrors that his characters generally endure. But A Man Escaped (1956) stands out in his canon as an almost sunny work, albeit with a background as grim as any of his films. This project was an ideal choice for Bresson, who himself spent a year as a prisoner of the Germans in occupied France.
An opening title tells us that A Man Escaped is based on a “true story.” Set in Lyon, France in 1943, the film was inspired by the daring escape of Resistance fighter André Devigny from prison just a few hours before his death. In Bresson’s hands, Devigny becomes Fontaine (François Leterrier), a man who tries to escape from the German authorities even before he’s incarcerated when, in the opening sequence, he leaps from the car transporting him to jail.
Fontaine expresses despair at his situation early on — “In the courtyard I got used to the idea of dying” — but he is ultimately completely engaged with his own liberation. Bresson has stated that Fontaine is motivated by “boredom and idleness” rather than Devigny’s courage, but the character’s behavior and comments challenge this idea. He is quietly encouraging to others (“Be strong, Orsini”), asks what he can do for them, and expresses his longing “to go home, to be free.” This attitude separates him from his fatalistic fellow prisoners, and isn’t lost on them. One says to another, “You can’t control fate.” The other replies, speaking of Fontaine, “he can.” Unlike so many Bresson characters, Fontaine is convinced that he has free will, even in the unlikely situation of prison, under sentence of death. And thinking he has it is enough to give it to him.
Still, Fontaine needs more than cleverness and courage to survive. Soon, an unexpected cellmate appears, a disheveled teenager named Jost dressed in an ill-fitting mix of German and French uniforms. Fontaine is puzzled: Is Jost a spy? Will he cooperate with Fontaine’s escape plan, which has become more pressing after he’s told he’ll be executed? Fontaine greets him with skepticism but also subtle affection, and worries that he may have to kill the boy to preserve his plan. The naïve Jost is in fact indispensable to the plan, embodying that additional spiritual ingredient that Fontaine requires in order to escape. “Alone I might have remained there,” he says, expressing the film’s theme of redemption. Fontaine’s decision not to hurt Jost, to add to his plan the spiritual dimension the boy represents, in a sense redeems Fontaine, and empowers him. With Jost, the escape becomes less selfish; Fontaine is helping another person, a boy with his life ahead of him. Jost is in a sense Fontaine’s deus ex machina.
Moving along to 1972, and into much darker territory, we come to Lancelot of the Lake. This was a long-cherished project for Bresson, one he began preparing before shooting A Man Escaped but did not finish until nearly two decades later. For this proposed chronicle of the aftermath of the Knights of the Round Table’s search for the Holy Grail, Bresson hoped to make two versions, one English and one French. He failed to secure financing for this, but no matter. With a Lancelot this good, one is enough. There are many aspects of the film worth talking about, but here I’ll concentrate on the fragmentation motif and the extraordinary blend of formal beauty and spiritual emptiness.
The film opens with grimly beautiful imagery that will be repeated in variations throughout: a dark forest in which knights in sleek, shining armor are cut down, with blood gushing from dying, sometimes decapitated bodies. King Arthur’s knights, led by his greatest, Lancelot, are returning in disarray from their failure to find the Grail. This epic failure is the first of many that filigree the film. Lancelot, inspired by a spiritual vision, tries to end his adulterous affair with Queen Guinevere, wife of King Arthur, but Guinevere refuses. When Lancelot does decide he wants her, the unity of the knights further splinters. Dissolute and despairing, they form warring factions, with Mordred, as dark a presence as his name suggests, leading the group against Lancelot. In this alienated world even friends fail to recognize each other. This can have lethal results, as when Lancelot unknowingly spears his beloved friend Gawain, both men’s identity hidden behind their helmets.
This fragmentation pervades the film, particularly the decapitation motif. Bresson, the most controlling of directors, is doing the same thing to these characters that they are doing to each other, fragmenting, attacking, symbolically beheading them with these repeated shots from the neck down. We know it’s Lancelot in the tournament but not because we can see him — he’s hidden by his helmet or truncated by the frame. These are not whole, realized beings, and cannot be in the world the film surveys. There is no grace here. Throughout Lancelot Bresson pays as much attention to the polished armor and chain mail the knights use for protection as to the characters themselves. They have literally “gone to pieces” in the spiritually desolate world of the film. Critic Richard Roud has suggested that Lancelot‘s constant close-ups of the armor, and the clanking, groaning-metal sounds heard frequently on the soundtrack, symbolize the code by which these knights live. But the armor can also be read as another of the film’s failure motifs, as, despite its seeming strength, it fails to protect them from the lethal arrows of Mordred or Lancelot’s lance. The constant emphasis on the surface — Bresson once said “Think of the surface of the work” — of steel and mesh in fact points to the severe vulnerability of the body. The armor is laughably ineffective, almost pointless, a flimsy barrier unable to guard the weak body and the spirit inside from the forces that assail it. Lancelot is littered with images of the knights’ life’s blood pouring out onto their glittering armor, images that echo the failure to find the Grail (which reputedly contained the blood of Christ). Unlike Fontaine and Jost, there is no redemption for these men. In this most carefully crafted film, the images of the knights’ destruction shimmer on the screen , shapes and colors as dramatically etched as an engraving by Dürer.
As always with Bresson, the soundtrack is as controlled as the characters. Most telling is the use of creaking, clanging armor in the knights’ movements, flights, and jousts. It’s hard not to read these disturbing sounds, repeated to enervating effect throughout, as the guttural cry of humanity that the characters cannot express in their own voices. As “models,” the actors cannot incarnate their characters in the usual ways. These are not nuanced performances, with actorly ticks and tricks. Bresson doesn’t allow such expressiveness. But displacing the characters’ emotions onto inanimate objects like the armor has its own poignancy and power.
Neither of these releases could be mistaken for a Criterion DVD. There’s very little in the way of extras, essentially just a trailer and chapters. But not to worry. Both transfers are excellent, and the films, after all, are what’s important.