As the nouvelle vague was breaking out in cinematheques around the world, one of its precursors and patron saints, French director Jacques Becker, was unknowingly wrapping up his career with what turned out to be his final film. Though not necessarily the kind of self-consciously elegiac monument to himself that Jean Cocteau assembled in Testament of Orpheus, Le Trou (literally, The Hole) seems to be a fitting send-off for Becker, though he was still young, not yet 54, and no one would have faulted him for presuming he had a few more films to go before his work was done.
Never one of France's higher profile directors in his lifetime, Becker nevertheless had the distinction of being admired as a powerful film maker by those whose taste and scrutiny looked beyond the conventions of respectability and catering to popular tastes. I only know him through his earlier Criterion films, Casque d'or and Touchez pas au grisbi, as well as his brief cameo in the early Jean Renoir satire Boudu Saved From Drowning, which he also worked on as a crew member. This DVD was the first Criterion release of a Becker film, a relic from the days when bare-bones releases were a lot more the norm than they are today, so don't come to this (now out-of-print) disc expecting anything extra by way of supplements. In a way, this lean presentation is also quite suitable to the film itself. In its stripped down, plain spoken but intensely penetrative portrayal of male solidarity and determination in the face of the law's indifference to their dismal fate, Le Trou confronts its audience with the truth of their complicity in a system that compels admittedly flawed men to use their noblest impulses in ways that virtually assure the destruction of themselves and those who refuse to play by its corrupted rules.
The basic premise of Le Trou is that imprisoned men, facing a long and hopeless stretch of confinement, will continually seek opportunities for escape, and occasionally act boldly and strategically to make it happen. The challenge of discovering and exploiting that escape route, while avoiding detection by the guards and the prison authorities above them, drives the suspense practically without hesitation over the course of two solid hours. Given what we know about prisons, the durability of their structure, the security measures taken to thwart jailbreaks (whether conspired or impulsive) and the dreadful ramifications of being caught in the act, the artist's challenge in such stories is to first lead us to invest in the characters themselves, and second, present a plan to get out that is both plausible and fascinating to observe. In both respects, Becker succeeds to such a degree that he effectively set the template for future variations on this theme.
What gets the film off to such a powerful start, happily sustained by both its cinematic methods and the natural demeanor of the nonprofessional actors at its center, is that we're immediately informed that this story is based on true events. "Non-actor" Jean Keraudy looks up from the car engine he's working on and turns to the camera, directly informing us that his film is his story of events that took place 13 years earlier. From there, we see a view of Paris and pan down into the imposing fortress of a large urban prison, where we're soon introduced to a group of men, including Keraudy among them, who set out on a risky quest for freedom from their cramped quarters. After we've watched it all unfold, and come to learn that an unusual degree of fidelity to that history was exercised in its making, we're even more impressed. The Santé prison in Paris, where the original escape took place, was the actual set for many of the scenes, and those that were shot in the studio were done on a soundstage that serves as a faithful replica of the prison cell and corridor where most of the action takes place.
But the verisimilitude goes well beyond the look and feel of Le Trou's atmospherics. What makes this film admirable and especially refreshing by the standards of most popular films today is just how low-tech and visceral an approach is taken to the material. Much of what makes Le Trou such a compelling watch is established through long wordless takes of muscles and crude implements crashing through thick barriers of concrete and stone, or bare fingers working a raw hacksaw blade through iron bars and steel locks. There are enough close calls and tense moments to satisfy just about anyone's appetite for "how will they get out of this?" nail-biters, but it's the gritty persistence, and the meticulous sound design of clanging metal and bouncing gravel in real time that stands out most strongly in retrospect. Becker's patience to capture this hard labor in all its nerve-wracking tedium, and his confidence in knowing that this idiosyncratic reduction of the usual cinematic "action" would still fixate our attention, is masterful.
Rather than win our affections with an array of character archetypes calculated to give most in the audience "someone to relate to," the men of Le Trou are, with one exception, not invested with any kind of a backstory to explain their imprisonment or what they hope to accomplish if their escape plans succeed. They're representatives of working class men who stoically play the hand that life's dealt them, hewing to a code of honor more instinctively felt than clearly articulated among their peers, despite whatever criminality got them into their current predicament. Each have their own personalities and role within the scheme, but the four thoroughly bonded inmates - Geo, Roland, Manu and Monseigneur - are first and foremost distinguished by their toughness, their resiliency and their unspoken commitment of solidarity with one another... even if they each plan to go their separate ways the moment they step unfettered into the open air.
That fifth inmate, Gaspard, is the peculiar wrinkle in Le Trou's plot, the guy who doesn't quite belong but gets pulled in anyway. He's obviously set apart from the rest both by his looks and his demeanor toward his fellow captives and their captors alike. We first see him after he's been busted for possession of a contraband lighter, which he tries to excuse by saying he'd forgotten it was in his pocket, it had no fuel, he kept it for sentimental reasons, and so on. It's a line of pleading and currying of favor that his eventual cellmates would never think of using if faced with a similar interrogation. Even though his banter manages to get Gaspard off the hook with the warden, it sets him up as "sympathetique" - a nice guy - a trait that will lead to future exploitation. Lacking the tough, grizzled defenses that build up over the course of a life filled with hard knocks, Gaspard is a man both privileged and to be pitied. The film's conclusion, about which I won't say much in detail, simply left me wondering if the hole referred to in the title wasn't so much the one they carved out of the floor in their jail cell as it is the emptiness that lurks behind Gaspard's need to be liked and the ease with which he allows himself to be emptied out and filled by others, without knowing himself what he really wants or needs.
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