Wednesday, May 4, 2011
Jacques Becker's final film, Le Trou, is a thrilling and powerful prison break drama that chronicles, with narrowly focused concentration, the attempt of a group of cellmates to break out of jail by tunneling beneath their cell into the sewer system. The film is stark and economical, with no intrusive music on the soundtrack, no elaborate plotting, and a bare minimum of character detail. Becker includes what he absolutely has to in order to tell his story, and strips away all the excess fat, leaving only the raw, vital essence of the prison break saga. The characters are generic, with no real back stories. The initial schemers in the escape plan are the experienced prisoner Roland (Jean Keraudy, who participated in the real life escape on which the film was based), Manu (Philippe Leroy), Geo (Michel Constantin) and Monseigneur (Raymond Meunier). The only information provided about any of them is that all of them are facing long jail sentences, and one or two of them could potentially be sentenced to the death penalty. Becker doesn't provide any information about their crimes; it's obvious that they're career criminals with violent pasts, and that they have a very strong incentive to escape or else at best they'll be spending the rest of their lives in prison.
This tight-knit group is disrupted by the arrival of Claude Gaspard (Marc Michel), who's moved into their cell from a cell block that's being repaired. The men accept him after initially sizing him up, and after some debate and uncertainty they inform him of their plan and include him in the escape attempt. Gaspard, nevertheless, is very different from the other men. He is not a hardened criminal but a man who has been unlucky, who has been placed in this situation more or less by accident. He was in a quarrel with his wife where she pulled a shotgun on him, and in the ensuing struggle she was wounded. Jealous over Gaspard's affair with her younger sister, the wife filed charges of attempted murder against him. Obviously, although he too is potentially facing a long stretch in prison, Gaspard is in a very different situation from the other men, and they remain somewhat uneasy around him, slightly suspicious of him even as they proceed with their plot.
Their plan involves digging a hole in their cell that will eventually lead through some underground passages to the sewer system. Once they gain access to the sewers, they find that it's necessary to dig a second and much larger hole to get around a concrete obstruction blocking the sewer tunnel. The tension in the film is sublime and at times unbearable. Every physical action becomes an exercise in suspense. When the prisoners first begin digging the hole in their cell, Becker holds a closeup on the growing hole itself, with the prisoners clustered around it, taking turns using a small piece of metal to crack the concrete floor.
The sequence plays out nearly in real-time, with the concrete shattering into small chunks, the sound of the hammering and the clinking together of the rocks and debris amplified on the soundtrack. The prisoners are hoping that the noise blends into the general clatter of the prison, where everyone is working during the day, and the lengthy, intense sequence emphasizes the hard work of breaking through the floor. The accumulation of tension through the nearly dialogue-free emphasis on manual work recalls Jules Dassin's Riffifi, another film in which the patient observation of physical processes is integral to the film's effect. The audience must wait with the men, anxious that they'll be caught at any moment. Every similar sequence of physical labor is extended with similar patience and intensity. A scene in which two of the prisoners file through a metal bar is achieved with time-lapse rather than in real time, but the effect is the same. The prisoners pause after every twenty filing motions to listen for guards, at which point the camera pans upward from the bar and the small slit in it to the face of the prisoner, his eyes alert, holding his breath as he listens for a sign that someone might be approaching.
The whole film is similarly tense, with an emphasis on time passing, on sand filtering through the makeshift hourglass the men create with two glass bottles and a handful of pilfered sand. Becker resorts to time-lapse sequences when he needs to, to show the hole in the sewer slowly widening, getting scooped out more and more as the men dig night after night. More often, events play out in something like real time, especially the lengthy scouting expedition when Manu and Roland first explore the area beneath the prison, searching for their way out. During this scene, the action proceeds at a deliberately slow pace as the men creep through the underground passages in the dark, dodging patrols by the guards, the only light coming from the small flame they construct with a bottle of ink. Becker often shoots down the dark corridors, that small light receding, the figures of the men getting swallowed up in shadows as they vanish into the distance.
The film's aesthetic is minimalist and claustrophobic, rarely leaving the confines of the prisoners' small cell or the tunnels beneath the prison. One exception is a very brief scene in which Gaspard gets a visit from Nicole (Catherine Spaak), his wife's sister and his lover, a scene shot entirely in glossy closeups with a wire screen overlaid on their faces, separating them. It's a brief glimpse of the outside world, a beacon of hope that confirms that Gaspard is not like the others, that there's a chance for him to get out of this situation through ordinary means, without tunneling into the ground. Gaspard, it seems, is going along with the men to some extent because he feels accepted, like part of a group, working towards a common goal. The men are self-sufficient and close in every way, sharing everything they have with one another, totally trusting one another to carry out this plan. Gaspard, seeing them work together and joining them in this work, is moved by the closeness of the group, by their spirit of stoical cooperation, their manly code of honor. As Monseigneur says at one point, a man should be totally self-sufficient in this way, even asexual; he says that men should stay away from women, and when a fellow inmate makes a knowing joke in response, he adds "no men either." This group of prisoners has formed an insular society of their own, closed off from the outside world, calmly and methodically executing their plans with a precision that can only come from total focus and determination.
Becker exhibits a similar focus in his filmmaking. Le Trou is a single-minded examination of the preparations for the escape attempt, with very little surrounding material. Even the portrayal of day-to-day prison life isn't overloaded with excess detail, presenting a barebones vision of ordinary prison routines. Rather than emphasizing the injustices of prison life, as many prison dramas do, Becker provides a few small examples of the kinds of petty inconveniences and invasions of privacy that prisoners deal with: random searches, the constantly alert gaze of the guards, the occasional hassle from a stricter guard. For the most part, though, the conditions in this prison aren't especially harsh, and it's the basic sense of confinement, and the threat of long years of similar restriction, from which these men wish to escape. That's what makes this film so simple but undeniably powerful, capturing with patience and an acute grasp of physicality the experience of prison and the mechanics of the breakout preparations. From its slowly building opening to its startling conclusion, Le Trou is a stunner of its genre.