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Choice in Bresson

Last Treefingers transplant.

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Running through Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped is the theme of choice: Who has a choice? When? What does making a choice entail? What happens when someone makes a choice (including to the people around them)? I want to explore this theme in relation to Bresson’s own ascetic style of filmmaking, looking particularly at A Man Escaped (1956) and The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962). Both films are true stories, the former of an escape from a notorious German prison during World War II, the latter naturally of Joan of Arc. The way Bresson works with the stories he is given, I want to suggest, exemplifies views about the nature of choice running thematically through A Man Escaped. (They run through The Trial of Joan of Arc, too, but less explicitly, so I shall focus on the former film.) There will be spoilers, insofar as the concept makes any sense in talking about Bresson (I don’t think it does).

Fontaine, having been captured by the Germans, begins immediately to plan his escape. This is almost his sole focus: what materials does he need, when can he work without getting caught, who will help him. (I say “almost” because he also shows care for his fellow prisoners—the escape plan is not solely for him.) He has a choice between escaping and not escaping, and chooses escape. From then on, his actions are substantially not free: his situation so limits him that there are very few actions possible that will not betray his initial choice to escape. This is made explicit when another prisoner who plans to escape with him gets impatient and tries a plan of his own. He invites Fontaine to join, but Fontaine judges the plan a failure. The prisoner tries to escape on his own and is captured and later shot. Had Fontaine chosen to attempt this plan and abandon his earlier efforts, he would have betrayed his initial choice. In a very real sense, then, he had no choice here, at least not if he was to reaffirm his initial choice.

At a second point, he again seems to be faced with a choice. He is sentenced to be shot, but before the sentence is carried out he is given a cellmate, Jost. He must choose: bring Jost in on the plan, or kill him. But even this choice—if it is not constrained in just the same way as the last one (I am still debating with myself whether or not it is so constrained)—is a choice subsumed under the initial choice: to escape. Escape is the standard that his initial choice creates, and every other choice is bound to it. Fontaine is, in this way, simply making the same choice again and again.

What is fascinating is the way this choice relates to Jost, for with Jost the question of choice is explicitly raised, at two points. Once, when Jost is explaining how he ended up in the same cell as Fontaine, he says of the actions that landed him in prison that he had no choice. Here he explicitly throws off the yoke of choice. This comes back to him later, when Fontaine brings Jost to the point of having to choose: join Fontaine, or serve the guards. Here Fontaine threatens him, psychologically coercing him to join. Jost tries to insist to himself that he has a choice, but he has already thrown off that yoke, and Fontaine makes sure he knows it. (Fontaine is not being malicious; he is simply doing what he must.) Fontaine has chosen, and Jost has rejected the burden of choosing, and so Jost is simply subsumed under Fontaine’s choice and Fontaine’s standard.

This model of choice as something very exacting, something that requires ascetic discipline—i.e. something more than what is captured by our everyday notion of choosing between flavors of ice cream—is exemplified by Bresson’s filmmaking. At the start of A Man Escaped, Bresson explicitly states that he is telling the story as it happened, “sans ornement.” At the beginning of The Trial of Joan of Arc, Bresson doesn’t make this same strong claim, but he does stress that he is relying on actual court documents and eyewitness accounts, and the suggestion is that he is not going beyond them.

In this way Bresson creates conditions in which, in his filmic choices, he as necessitated as Fontaine. A Man Escaped is as focused, austere, and patient as Fontaine’s escape; it includes nothing that is unessential to it. It does not artificially ramp up the suspense at crucial moments (yet is no less suspenseful for its modesty here), does not show gratuitous emotion, does not invent unnecessary pitfalls for Fontaine, etc. Likewise, in The Trial of Joan of Arc, Bresson horrifies the viewer without showing anything gratuitously horrifying. When Joan is burned, we hardly see it, and hear no screams, only a single “Jesus” as the flames reach her. This is enough, however: she takes his name in vain, and after all we have seen that is a more terrifying indication of her suffering than any screaming would be, however more physically uncomfortable the latter might be.

There is an obvious response: Bresson still chose the lighting, the framing, the specific scenes to show, the location of the camera and its movement, etc., etc. True, in a sense, but in the same sense that Fontaine chose not to kill Jost. The requirement, sans ornement, that Bresson imposes upon himself forces on him a rigorous constraint in every such “choice” he makes: it must not add any ornament. It must not manipulate the viewer in an illegitimate way. It must not serve effect rather than truth. In each such decision, then, there is the risk that he will betray the choice that sets the standard for all other decisions.

Just as Fontaine chooses to escape, and so must in every new situation choose escape again, must choose in ways forced conjointly by his situation and his choice to escape, and yet in this discovers something that is uniquely Fontaine, the Fontaine who does not kill Jost, who remains patient rather than join his fellow’s hasty escape plan, so Bresson makes the choice to tell a particular story sans ornement and is snapped into a rigidly determined ascetic discipline—film it in this way and not that, else you will betray your choice—and yet through this discipline creates films that are ineluctably Bresson. In this Bressonian model of choice, freedom, necessity, the singular and the general are united.

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  1. 2013/12/12 at 15:20

    Great post. I completely agree with you. You are a good writer. I have a film blog. I tend to write about things that no one has heard of.

    • 2013/12/12 at 17:04

      Thanks for the kind comment. It’s a busy week for me, but next week I’m done with the semester and will spend some time browsing your blog. It looks interesting.

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