If you haven't taken the paradigm-shifting plunge into the films of Robert Bresson, there's no better place to begin than LACMA's double feature: new prints of A Man Escaped (1956) — Bresson's most accessible, suspenseful and heroic film, and cinema's best prison-escape movie — and the ultrarare Four Nights of a Dreamer (1971), his wry adaptation of Dostoyevsky's White Nights.
Based on a true story about a French Resistance fighter imprisoned in Nazi-occupied Lyon, A Man Escaped masterfully constructs the spaces — physical and mental — inhabited by Lt. Fontaine (played in a low-key register by an untrained actor, François Leterrier). Fontaine's narration pinpoints his thoughts, the restricted camera intensifies his actions and, above all, the sounds emanating offscreen connect him with the world beyond his cell, a largely unseen universe of freedom.
The film's alternate title is The Wind Blows Where It Will, a biblical quote about the vagaries of the spirit, and the movie is a riveting double play on Fontaine's physical initiative versus the role of chance or divine providence. Initially isolated, collaborations with his fellow inmates play a vital role in his material and spiritual quest.
Bresson's reputation for “austerity” has become critical cliché, a shortchanging of his playful penchant for coincidences and reversals; it also overlooks the lovely Four Nights of a Dreamer, which, mired in rights issues, has never been released on video anywhere. It's an affectionate tribute to the beauty of Parisian youth with a keen eye for the friction caused when whimsical idealism meets the messy demands of interpersonal reality.
An introverted art student (Guillaume des Forêts) fantasizes in his loft of unfinished paintings, records writerly musings on his tape recorder and wanders the streets to eye (but not engage) attractive women. He discovers a woman (Isabelle Weingarten) about to throw herself into the Seine for unrequited love. The two agree to meet on successive nights; they wander the Left Bank to share their stories but suppress their growing affection.
Four Nights of a Dreamer offers a chance to appreciate Bresson's continued fascination with personal isolation, his facility with untrained actors and the way tantalizing soundscapes enliven his images; the sounds of passing cars and periodic street musicians provide the audible glue that binds his protagonists together. Two of the film's best scenes are uncharacteristic of the filmmaker: a lovingly rendered nude reverie and a laugh-out-loud parody of a bad thriller, both exquisite examples of Bresson's underappreciated light touch.
SPOTLIGHT ON ROBERT BRESSON | Thurs., March 1, 7:30 p.m. | Bing Theater at LACMA | LACMA.org