In the middle of a season of Bresson films, it is natural to feel that the world is divided on the one hand into those very familiar with his films and on the other, into those coming to him anew or finding him opaque and difficult. Either way, Un Condamné is an immensely rewarding film.
Take the story to start with, of a man escaping from prison. If you are coming to the film anew, let me say that the suspense is not in whether he will escape or not, because we are told the ending in the title; the suspense is in the how. The film sits among a group of books and films made after the war about escape from POW camps, in particular British prisoners from German camps, for example The Wooden Horse, The Colditz Story, The Great Escape. Un Condamné is different in two ways: firstly, Montluc prison in Lyon, where Fontaine is incarcerated, is some distance from the holiday-camp that characterises a British film like The Wooden Horse. For a Frenchman imprisoned in Montluc release was not a possibility without the defeat of the German occupiers. Many who went in never came out alive, and indeed the opening of the film contains a dedication to the 10,000 who suffered there as victims of the Nazis, and the 7,000 who died. Secondly, Fontaine is under sentence of death and the decisions he makes about his life are in that context. It is therefore much closer to Darkness at Noon, Koestler’s novel published in 1940 about the terrifying world of the political prisoner. And Bresson knew of what he filmed, since he had had his own experience as a POW in 1940-1, which I take to be a formative experience in his life. The story is a true one, taken from the account of his escape by a noted French résistant, André Devigny, published in 1954. Bresson has changed his name in the film to Fontaine but gives us the story ‘as it is, sans ornaments,’ as he tells us, that is to say ‘unadorned’.
Well, up to a point. Consider the title. The first title for the film was Aide-toi, le ciel t’aidera (Heaven will help you if you help yourself, an idea closely linked to Benjamin Franklin’s very Protestant notion of ‘God helps those who help themselves’), and the reference to ‘heaven’ is not a casual one. However, this title was abandoned for whatever reasons. The title we do have has an alternative one: Le Vent souffle où il veut or ‘The wind blows where it wills’, which are Jesus’s words to Nicodemus in John’s Gospel about the working of the Holy Spirit or grace. Nor is the main title neutral: ‘Un Condamné a mort s’est echappé.’ Fontaine is a ‘man escaped’, yes, but he is more than that, for the fuller meaning of the title is: ‘A man under judgment that is sending him to death and damnation has escaped to salvation.’
This needs some explanation. In 1966, Bresson was interviewed by Jean-Luc Godard and Michel Delahaye in Cahiers du Cinema. Towards the end of this lengthy conversation, there is one very notable exchange. Delahaye says, “In your mind the world seems condemned.” Godard then jumps in with a very Godardian intervention: “Exactly. Pascal is an Inquisitor.” To this Bresson calmly and courteously replies: “Pascal is particularly important for me, but then he is important for everyone.” So, now you know.
Reading the interview again 10 years ago, I wondered what this was all about. Pascal is an extraordinary figure in the history of France, of philosophy, even of mathematics. I had a look at his Complete Works, and came across an essay entitled Écrits sur grâce (‘Essays on Grace’), which immediately seemed to turn a searchlight on Un Condamné. It seems to be a theological essay, but it is as much philosophical, dealing as it does with the question of free will. He describes Calvinism, in which all mankind is predestined by God for either salvation or condemnation, for either heaven or hell, as a repugnant idea (he uses the word insupportable) on the grounds that there is no allowance for the operation of free will or choice by humans. Pascal then contrasts this idea with an Augustinian doctrine of much greater complexity. As with Calvin, Pascal says the world is under judgment; indeed, he agrees that some people are saved by the will of God. But he then diverges radically by arguing that the remainder can join the elect who are saved if they persevere in seeking redemption, and can experience the grace that effects redemption, the grace without which they do not will their own salvation. In effect, God wills absolutely to save some people, and wills conditionally to condemn others. Salvation comes from the will of God and condemnation from the will of man. So, to be saved, we need to help ourselves.
How does this work in the film? Fontaine exercises his will in order to achieve his escape, but to his skill, ingenuity and extraordinary perseverance, there is added the hand of God. For example, when the jacket pockets are searched in the washroom, the German guard overlooks the jacket containing Fontaine’s escape plan written on a piece of paper. Then there is the change of view in Blanchet imprisoned in the cell next to Fontaine, who goes from despair to hope, as if he were born again. At a cardinal point in the film, the young Jost is placed in Fontaine’s cell. Fontaine has to decide whether he is an informer and therefore to be eliminated, or to trust him. He chooses to trust him, and that trust is repaid. Are these operations of luck or chance, or the operation of miraculous grace? The way Bresson tells his story, it is the latter.
Enough metaphysics. One final technical thought: there are four elements to Bresson’s film-making: images – obviously, and every one meticulously composed and placed in the narrative; words – few, but every one is important; music – very sparingly used, but its appearance each time is significant; and then, sounds – these are crucial in creating a picture of the world, since in prison you learn as much if not more from what you hear as from what you see. Fontaine is standing at his cell window when he hears, and therefore we hear, the sound of a bell ringing on a tram in the road outside. Without showing us in pictures, Bresson uses a sound to conjure up a different reality, that of the everyday normal world, and invests it with the air of heaven, for it is to that salvation that Fontaine strives to escape.
It is normal to end a talk like this with the word, ‘Enjoy’. This seems the wrong exhortation for a Bresson film. Therefore let me say, ‘Be amazed.’