Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Le Trou (1960)

French films from the fifties have always held much more of a fascination for me than those of the New Wave. Filmmakers like Godard, Truffaut, and Resnais undoubtedly made huge contributions to cinema, but they often did so at the expense of telling a good story. Don’t get me wrong, I love many of their films, and had I been around in 1960 I would have championed them as much as anyone else. But from a modern perspective, it seems they reach a point of experimentation that now seems a bit tedious, and many of their films, unclassifiable as they are, seem oddly dated. This has never been the case with the class of filmmakers that directly preceded them. Directors like Jean Pierre Melville, Henri Georges Clouzot, Robert Bresson, and Jacques Becker were taking equally bold stylistic risks in the 1950s, but they always did so in the service of their narrative. Whereas Truffaut and Godard eventually just made films about film, movies like A Man Escaped, Pickpocket, Les Diaboliques, Bob Le Flambeur, and The Wages of Fear were all about process and experience. They detailed the ways people would go to extremes in order to survive, and they were always just as entertaining as they were inventive and political.

Case in point: Jacques Becker’s Le Trou (The Hole). One of the all-time great prison break movies, this film revels in the details of the ways five Parisian convicts plot and scheme to escape from their jail cell. Le Trou is based on a true story, and in a bold move, Becker even cast one of the actual participants in the real-life jailbreak to play a character in the film. The rest of the cast were all nonprofessionals as well (some of whom would go on to have respectable acting careers), but you wouldn’t know it to watch the film. If anything, the lack of dramatic training is what makes these characters, who are cool and professional to the core, seem so believable.

Becker’s fascination with the minutiae of prison life and the small details of the prisoners’ plan pervades the whole film. It’s all a part of the preoccupation with the process of performing complex and dangerous tasks that seems to be a running theme of filmmakers like he and Clouzot. Here we get to bear witness to every small part of the convicts' scheme, from the way they build a periscope from a tooth brush and a shattered piece of glass so they can spy back on the guards, to how they construct an hour glass with sand smuggled from one of the guards’ ashtrays in order to keep track of time. Beyond these tasks, their days are filled with the monotony of prison life, which sees them assembling boxes, sleeping, and eating food sent to them by their relatives (there’s a great early scene of the prison’s inspector expertly and shamelessly cutting apart one prisoner’s items to check them for contraband), but at night they band together to institute an ingenious and very audacious escape plan.

In the early running, Becker maintains an airtight control of space and pacing, to the point that it seems many of the scenes play out in real time. This is one of the most-discussed aspects of Le Trou and Becker’s filmmaking in general, what has been called his seamless “control of temporality.” Here, he uses it to immerse the viewer in the gargantuan task these men create for themselves, and from the very beginning of the breakout there is a palpable sense of tension. Take, for example, the first step of the plan, which requires the men to hammer through the stone floor of their cell in order to reach a tunnel directly beneath it. As the men take turns chiseling the floor of their cell with a crudely fashioned hammer, Becker simply lets his camera roll, eventually creating a four-minute take of the floor being broken apart. The effect is that we become completely immersed in their struggle as though we are the sixth member of the team, and Becker’s refusal to cut away to show the guards just outside the cell only heightens the suspense. This stress-inducing scene is only the beginning of a massive undertaking that will see the men tunnel through rock, file metal bars, pick locks, and chisel through cement, and all while avoiding roving guard patrols.

Le Trou
culminates in a stunning sequence of two of the men finally making their way to the city’s surface and getting a glimpse of the Paris street and the outside of the prison walls. It’s an amazing and evocative sequence, considering how hermetically sealed the film’s environment has been up to this point, and it speaks volumes about the film’s themes of freedom, responsibility, and loyalty, especially since the two then return to the prison in order to collect the rest of the group. What follows is a painfully nerve-wracking ending that hits about as hard as any you’re likely to see.

Le Trou was the last film made by Becker, who died shortly after filming, and its release in 1960 coincided with that of Godard’s Breathless and the start of the New Wave. Directors like Melville would continue the tradition of hard-boiled, realistic film that was started in the 40s and 50s, but it seems that Le Trou stands as a kind of turning point in French cinema. The bold style and medium-shattering experiments that followed were certainly a necessary step in film history, but it does seem a shame that the tradition of taut, athletic films like Le Trou was briefly lost along the way.

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