Tim Cawkwell's Cinema

Intelligible writing on intelligent film

Reflections on Bresson 11: Second Lives

Do you have a sense that some story patterns keep repeating themselves? The other day I saw Sophie Scholl: the last days (2005, Germany), about a young woman executed by the Nazis in 1943, and lo and behold, there was the Creon-Antigone story from Sophocles’ play re-enacted in the battle of wits between Sophie and her Nazi interrogator, Herr Mohr.


When Melville made Le Deuxième Souffle in 1965 (from the novel by José Giovanni), the film starts with Gu Minda’s escape from prison with two others in the half-light of dawn. This entails leaping from the roof of the prison block to the outer wall, then descending to the ground and freedom (of a kind). In the film, Bernard leaps safely, but when a second prisoner leaps, he misses the top of the wall and falls to his death. That leaves Gu. He hesitates, then leaps, and has to be hauled to safety by Bernard. The sequence is silent except for the bell tolling six o’clock, and the sound of a dog barking.


Now Melville could not, to my mind, have made this sequence without having in mind Fontaine’s escape from Montluc prison in Bresson’s Un Condamné à mort s’est échappé/ A Man Escaped. Rather than leaping, Fontaine has to throw a rope and hook across the gap and then clamber across. He has a long hesitation before he does so, marked by silence, but then acts and with his young partner Jost makes his escape to the sound of Mozart.


It is a case of the drowned and the saved: the second prisoner fails, the third succeeds. And in A Man Escaped there is a third party beside Fontaine and Jost – God, ‘helping him who helps himself.’ With the atheist Melville, God is replaced by Bernard, but the idea is the same.


Le Deuxième Souffle has recently been remade by Alain Corneau as The Second Wind. It raises the question whether it is wise to remake what is already a wonderful film. It must be admitted that Corneau makes a decent fist of it, not least in his fidelity to Melville’s visual composition and editing style, while using a radically different visual tone, replacing Melville’s black-and-white, realist style with blacks, yellows and golds, and barely half-a-dozen daylight shots. The story pattern in the opening escape is preserved too: Bernard succeeds, one fails and dies, Gu succeeds but only because Bernard helps. Corneau is descended from Melville but he could also be called Bresson’s grandson.


Well, up to a point. Corneau’s version of the escape uses more shots than Melville’s (and lasts 2 minutes 40 seconds against Melville’s 2 minutes 19 seconds), features slow motion and the use of external music to convey atmosphere. It also uses digital trickery to show Gu hanging above the abyss held only by clinging on to Bernard’s arm. (The viewpoint is reminiscent of Hitchcock’s penchant for the vertiginous view, man suspended over oblivion, achieved in his case by analogue trickery.) Such expedients would be anathema to Bresson and Melville: digital manipulation is to abandon ‘unadorned’ (sans ornements) story-telling; slow motion is a terrible aesthetic misjudgement; and there is a profound aesthetic choice in only using actual sounds such as a bell striking or a dog barking to suggest a world beyond the immediate one depicted in the film frame. So the contrast is between the black-and-white economy of Bresson and Melville and the colourific hyperbole of Corneau. That’s the age we live in.


And then there’s François Leterrier as Bresson’s Fontaine, Lino Ventura as Melville’s Gu, Daniel Auteuil as Corneau’s Gu – compare and contrast, but that’s another story.