BY CLAIRE WARD-BEVERIDGE
The first time I saw a Robert Bresson film, it was Diary of a Country Priest at TIFF in 2004 as part of the Dialogues series. Chantal Akerman introduced it and at the time I had no idea who she was, so her presence didn’t impress me. The film itself didn’t really impress me either until much later when I was reading the sad little “film diary” that I’d been keeping over the course of the festival (my mom had purchased a 10 film passbook thing as a “starting film school” gift), which indicated that it turned out to be by far the best thing I saw at TIFF. I mean, everything I had seen that year had more or less turned out to be complete shit, but even so, it stood out to me somehow. The close-quarters framing and gentle pacing; the soft-spoken-ness of it all somewhat charmed me. It felt real-er than any film of that era that I’d seen up until that point, not to mention staring into Claude Laydu’s deep, brown, Johnny Cash-esque visage for 2 hours felt like lying on a pile of velvet.
So when I decided to review A Man Escaped, which was released on March 26th through Criterion, I looked forward to certain aspects that I had learned over the years were tightly associated with Bresson’s films: thinly dispersed music, hyperreal (near-wooden) acting and enough starkly-photographed landscapes to fill a football field (whatever that means). This film delivered on most of those counts, aside from the landscapes thing, and while I could appreciate, to a certain extent, how differently it fit into the film-world output in 1956, it didn’t really grab me as I had hoped it would. I think partly, it was those very Bressonian qualities which kept my sympathies for the main character at a more or less safe distance: when an actor is so impassive as to be almost mimicking an android, one can’t help but lose interest in certain respects. On the whole, it gave me the impression that the film was much more plot-driven rather than character-driven and even that reality seemed fairly non-existent at times. I was waiting for the inevitable climax/outcome for most of the time and, as is common with certain films of that ilk/era, the ending was so abrupt there was barely time to reflect on everything the film had been building towards.
I must say, it is rather strange to basically lambaste a film that is so highly regarded and oft-referenced in the film world and as I was trying to describe to a friend before I hunkered down to review this, it feels weirdly wrong; like somehow I’m simply mistaken and didn’t “get” it. Which may very well be the case, but I gave it a shot and didn’t enjoy it. There you go. I respect what it was trying to do and what it did for directors and writers that succeeded it–influencing those like Paul Schrader and Tarkovsky–perhaps to me that was the best thing about it.[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZJUieYP5Fs0]
Claire Ward-Beveridge is a freelance writer & photographer who lives in North Parkdale, Toronto and her rattled brain. She loves Werner Herzog and depressing English dramas. Follow her @clairewarb.