Saturday, December 8, 2018

A Man Escaped (Bresson, 1956)

While teaching our film music and sound course, I often introduced scenes from Jacques Tati's Monsieur Hulot's Holiday (1953) and My Uncle (1958) as a novel way of reinforcing the idea that sound can be a varying, vital, sometimes unavoidable element of a filmmaker's creative method. Monsieur Hulot's indecipherable dialogue and many outrageous sound gags are hilarious.

Robert Bresson's contemporaneous A Man Escaped (1956) is of a different order altogether: a French Resistance fighter in Lyon jailed by the Nazis recounts his methodically worked-out scheme to escape. David Bordwell and Kristen Thompson write that the soundtrack is "a central factor in shaping our experience of the whole film. .  . through Bresson’s control of what sounds we hear, what qualities these sounds have, and what relationships exist among those sounds and between sound and image."
Throughout the film, sound has many important functions. As in all of his films, Bresson emphasizes the sound track, rightly believing that sound may be just as cinematic as images. At certain points in A Man Escaped, Bresson even lets his sound technique dominate the image; throughout the film, we are compelled to listen. Indeed, Bresson is one of a handful of directors who create a complete interplay between sound and image.
Bordwell has generously posted a PDF of the case study essay from which I have just quoted. The essay was deleted from an earlier edition of Bordwell and Thompson's Film Art: An Introduction and has been posted for free download here: link. Go the lower part of the page, under the heading "Film analyses from earlier editions of Film Art."

A Man Escaped is included in the excellent Criterion Collection series of DVD editions, and the entire essay posted by Bordwell (excepting only the scene example at the end) is included on the Special Features disk. An actor reads the text in voice-over while stills or clips are offered in the imagetrack. The PDF essay also includes a set of questions at the end; these could serve as the starting point for class discussion, assignment, or even paper topic.

The essay's headings are:
Fontaine’s Commentary
Sound Effects and Narration
Sound Motifs
A Sample Sequence
Summary [and Questions]
About the music, they write that "another auditory motif involves the only nondiegetic sound in the film—passages from a Mozart mass." The work is the C Minor Mass, K. 427. Both Kyrie and Agnus Dei (which Mozart did not write) are said to be used -- I recognized only the Kyrie. Apart from the expected positions at beginning and end, brief excerpts (usually about 10 seconds or less) are heard at or near these timings: 20:28, 28:30, 40:00, 48:40, 51:40, 61:05, 69:00, and 100:00.