Sunday, August 25, 2013

Jacques Becker | Le Trou (The Hole)

an existential exit
by Douglas Messerli
Jacques Becker, José Gijovanni, and Jean Aurel (based on a novel by José Giovanni), Jacques Becker (director) Le Trou (The Hole) / 1960

Four men imprisoned in France’s Santé Prison for various criminal acts, have determined to break out. So begins what, at first, might seem like yet another film about a prison break, and even I, who knew of Jacques Becker’s significant film works, felt some reservations about the subject. What new angles could possibly have been expressed in this 1960 film, especially since I had recently seen Robert Bresson’s stunningly beautiful A Man Escaped of four years earlier? Indeed Becker’s work bears some similarity to Bresson’s in that his actors are amateurs, and he approaches his subject, somewhat like Bresson, in an almost documentary style, beginning the film, in fact, with a kind of testimony to its reality by Jean Keraudy, the real-life mastermind of the attempted escape.

Whereas, Bresson’s work, however, is intensely about isolation and spiritual salvation, Becker’s is a down-to-earth expression of brotherly love and commitment to a social grouping, no matter how small it may be. The four, we perceive from some of the earliest scenes, are, as different as they may be, deeply interlinked, working together as a unit that—although not precisely sexual—represents a communal spirit that makes it clear that they are willing to die for one another. Into this community, a new prisoner is introduced by the prison authorities, a handsome young man, Claude Gaspared (Marc Michel) who we realize from the very beginning doesn’t quite fit. He is not only a “pretty boy,” while the others, Roland Darbant (Jean Keraudy), Manu Borelli (Philippe Leroy), Monseigneur (Raymond Meunier), and Geo (Michael Constantin) are closer to thugs. They are clearly criminals who have lived hard lives, working previously as laborers or factory workers, while Geo has been a car salesman with a rich wife. Accordingly, they are at first cautious about revealing to Geo their plans; yet how are they to pursue plans if they do not? Despite the fact that we have already perceived that the prison director has seemingly taken an interest in the younger man, we too soon grow to admire the diffident “boy,” who is perfectly willing to share the foods he receives from the outside, and is most appreciative of the other men’s attentions.

Consequently, while still hesitant, the men share their intentions, and he, quite willingly, joins them, expressing his “luck” at having been transferred to their cell. So begins the long and stunning series of scenes where, in tight close-ups of hands and make-shift tools (again, not unlike Bresson’s cinematic focuses), these men do the unthinkable, breaking up the concrete, digging through the earth and, finally, climbing into the bowels of the prison cellar only to have to, once more, break through another concrete wall into the sewer system, the two leaders tunneling into the world outside the prison. But even then, they return, to help, the very next night, their fellow prisoners along the route. The very ingenuity of these home-made methods fascinate us, and help link us to these prisoners’ fate. By the time they finish their “hole” and we have watched them wander through the dark labyrinth of passages that might allow them an existential exit from their fates, we care about them so sincerely that we are scarcely troubled about their previous crimes; we want them to escape!

        Yet we know something is still wrong. The story Claude has given upon his imprisonment is that his wife had tried to shoot him, and in his attempt to stop her, she herself was wounded. It is clearly a kind of “romantic” entanglement that bears little resemblance to events in the others’ lives. When at the last moment, Geo is called to the warden’s office, where he is told that his wife has dropped her charges, and he may be able to return home in a few months, the other men can only suspect that something is amiss. He has spent two hours in the warden’s office; who, they ask, might want to spend that much time with the warden? Although one of the group, Geo, has determined not to join them in the escape, Claude still seems determined to tag along, arguing that he probably will still get five years for the accidental shooting.

       As the first two men crawl into the hole on their way to the freedom Bresson’s characters hope to attain, prison guards march down the hall to arrest the entire “cell.” “They have been betrayed.

     Although the subject of Becker’s film, accordingly, may seem “old hat,” its method and cinematic revelation is absolutely original and mesmerizing. At film’s end, it is as if we too, the audience, have been betrayed, so linked have we become to the overwhelming barriers these now seemingly ordinary men have sought to overcome. This is the third time Roland has been caught in an attempted escape, and we know that his fate, despite his appearance in the first frame of this film, will not be a pleasant one. The world in which these men live is one in which everything is cut-up and cut-off. Food is detestable, work not required (the men agree to create cardboard boxes only to cover over their nocturnally-created “hole.”) It is already a “hole,” a kind of pit into which they have been thrown and from which they cannot now hope to escape. Yet, even in their arrestment, there still seems to be between the original four cellmates a kind of allegiance, a brotherhood that is more civilized than the rulers of this dreadful world into which in which they have been devoured.

      Sadly, Becker—whom several critics and I feel has been underrated in the development of 20th century French filmmaking—died a few weeks after the film was released.

Los Angeles, August 24, 2013

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