"Le Trou", Dir:Jacques Becker, 1960
Updated: Dec 7, 2020
I've watched 2 Jacques Becker-directed films over the past week and following "The Lovers of Montparnasse" / "Montparnasse 19", a friend recommended I check out his 1960 film "Le Trou" (Eng: "The Hole") so it was a case of a director I was not familiar with and a film I'd never heard of, but my friend rated it very highly.
The earlier choice of "Montparnasse 19", also directed by Becker in 1958 and which loosely documents the life of the painter Amadeu Modigliani, was led purely by a desire to see more of Anouk Aimee, an actress who I knew of but only via the very narrow lens of Hollywood films she had starred in and Jacques Demi's "Lola".
In different hands this could have resulted in a very tedious film - a film set mostly in one small room and a prison cell at that - and yet Becker manages to craft a taught drama that maintains edge of the seat tension interwoven with meaningfully banal banter in the sense that it propels the narrative forward and reveals details about each character, where opportunities for drama might be limited - there's only so much mileage to be got from banal banter between inmates or violent outbursts, for example.
While it's true that prison drama's are a film sub-genre, with prison breakouts forming the basis for some notable films, such as "The Great Escape" or "The Shawshank Redemption", and tending to be based on actual breakouts - "Le Trou" uses this formula but avoids the cliches of compressing time using cuts - for example, when we see the 5 prisoners trying to dig themselves to freedom, we are aware of every painful moment, every hammer blow to the unyielding concrete, something that is reinforced when they make a simple clock to mark every half hour - the scene plays out in real-time.
The film opens with a man appearing to repair a car, who then turns to address the camera with the pronouncement that the film you are about to see is based on fact and that he himself was one of the inmates featured, his story related to the director, Jacques Becker.
The narrative then shifts into flashback as a young man, Gerard, is being moved from a solitary cell to join 4 prison inmates in another cell.
Gerard is reluctantly accepted into the fold of these unusually unthreatening and genial prisoners, who are initially suspicious of him, and this goes further after he gains their confidence and as they let him on their plan to escape.
The larger part of the film details, in almost documentary fashion, their escape plan and the sheer brute force required to dig themselves out through several feet of concrete floor into a basement and then, via a series of tunnels and galleries underneath the prison, to freedom via the city's sewer system, all the while trying to outwit the prison guards, and throughout the entire process we as the viewer are effectively placed in the position of being a 6th inmate, ie we are in the cell with the prisoners the entire time.
Bunuel described the film as a surrealistic masterpiece since it was an entire film about a hole, and I would struggle to see what was especially surrealistic about it, though I see his point - poetic would be more accurate as it is revealed that the cultured Gerard enters the cell with an escape route in place, though it is one that he personally doubts will help him to avoid a minimum 5 year sentence for premeditated murder - he decides to throw in his lot with his fellow inmates and joins them in tunneling out despite the fact that it is revealed that they have greater reason for wanting to escape since they face the noose or indeterminately long sentences - this fosters suspicion and causes some tension between him and the others, which adds another layer to the drama.
I won't spoil the conclusion but I will say that this is a remarkable film and I would even go as far as to say that it's one of the best jail-breakout films ever and probably unique within that genre and something that would never have originated in Hollywood.