Fontaine struggles to help himself, seeing coincidence as element of an unknowable and mysterious alchemy. Director Robert Bresson washes away all pretense and melodrama to reveal the sparse determination of the human soul, allowing the audience to project their own fear and anxiety upon the silver screen.
The first scene of the film is flawless as Bresson introduces the protagonist Fontaine, detained in the back seat of a moving car. Bresson creates tension visually with close-ups and editing: from steady hands slowly reaching for the door handle to a gentle pan of handcuffs upon the wrists of Fontaine’s companions, cut to the point-of-view shots as the car speeds past sudden obstacles until Fontaine weighs his chances and leaps from the car. His recapture is shown off screen punctuated by gunshots, and as he’s thrown back into the car he is cuffed and pistol-whipped. This entire sequence is devoid of dialogue and denotes the cinematic style: actions speak louder than words.
Bresson eschews suspense and instead centers exclusively upon Fontaine’s claustrophobic perceptions: after all, the very title gives away the ending. But it’s not the result of Fontaine’s struggle that concerns Bresson, but the struggle itself. The film becomes an exercise in repetition, a forlorn soliloquy like a prayer muttered to a deaf god. The viewer becomes engrossed in the daily activities and begins to comprehend the crushing despair of the prison, trapped in the story with Fontaine. Though the other prisoners lack faith, carrying the weight of their mortality, the protagonist’s persistence is inspirational. Fontaine’s belief is in himself because it’s the only thing he can control, and if there is a higher power help will only come through action. Bresson keeps the German soldiers to the periphery of the screen like ghosts. The use of sound equates a spoon with a key, the click of steel as the tumblers seal Fontaine’s fate, or the gunshots heard from the courtyard passing their terminal judgment.
Fontaine’s narrow escape is a violent poetry, his willpower infectious. When he is assigned a new cellmate it’s apparent the newcomer will either join him, or be murdered by him: nothing will stop his attempt. Bresson depicts the meticulous transmutation of mundane items into miracles: bed sheets slowly wound into rope and the metal lamp into grappling hooks, slowly and secretly, time lost and unaccounted for in this microcosm. Finally, Fontaine must murder not out of hatred but necessity, and he and his young companion fade away into the ethereal mist.
Final Grade: (A)