With recent retrospectives and video releases of several films, the United States is in the midst of a Jacques Becker revival. The rediscovery of Becker is an unusual opportunity because Becker was never discovered to start with. He’s tended to be more of a name than a presence in French film as seen from America—a name invoked with respect, but conjuring nothing very palpable. What reputation Becker has had is based largely on the affection the French New Wave had for him: François Truffaut suggested that while he and his friends admired Jean Renoir, they identified with Becker. Indeed, Becker’s apprenticeship as Renoir’s assistant functioned as a link between French film’s Golden Age and its reinvigoration by the New Wave. But too many critics have taken this link (and Becker’s subsequent embrace of his mentor’s humanistic style) as a cue to dismiss Becker as Renoir Lite.
His small but rich body of work—thirteen films—presents us with several Beckers to discover: the social documenter of Antoine et Antoinette (1947) and Rendez-vous de juillet (1949), the master stylist of both the tragic love story Casque d’or (1952) and the gangster classic Touchez pas au grisbi (1954), and the unclassifiable director of Le Trou (aka The Hole or The Night Watch, 1960), his last and perhaps most perfect film. If anything unites these disparate films, other than their supreme elegance, it’s the closeness with which Becker watches his characters. (He called himself “something of an entomologist,” which shows an affinity with Buñuel.) The degree to which the director subjugates himself to the detail of his characters’ lives and actions is extraordinary: it accounts for why, in each film, we tend to lose sight of Becker, who not only refuses to comment on his characters, but also refrains from any telling lapse in tone that might make us aware of his own self-abnegation as a source of aesthetic value.
The novel on which Le Trou is based recounts the true story of a prison escape plan in which the author, José Giovanni, took part. Becker wrote the script with Giovanni and cast the film with nonprofessionals, one of whom, Jean Keraudy (Roland), played the same role in real life that he plays in the film. The use of nonprofessionals (and, interestingly, Becker made professionals out of them—Philippe Leroy [Manu] and Michel Constantin [Géo] went on to particularly successful acting careers) is only one of the elements that heighten our sense that, as we watch Le Trou, we are immersed in a world that has been seen and experienced. The smooth, heavy, surprisingly quick hands with which an inspector unpacks and dissects the food sent to the prisoners as gifts have an obscene inexorability, which is that of the physical itself. As the preparations for the escape get under way, details proliferate: Roland fashions a periscope from a sliver of mirror, a toothbrush, and thread; a bar is removed from the bedframe to serve as a hammer.
Crucial to our experience of the film is Becker’s control of temporality. As Roland hammers away at the stone floor of the cell, the camera records his progress in a high-angle close shot. Exhausted, Roland cedes the hammer to Manu, who continues—and, surprisingly, the shot too continues, without a cut, making us aware that we are watching people expend the exact amount of effort required to produce the effects on the stone that we see. Manu passes the hammer to Géo, the smashed surface now covered in rubble and dust; Roland picks up the hammer after Géo has dropped it, and uses a pan to clear away dirt and rocks. Altogether, an unbroken take of just under four minutes. By forcing us to share a collective duration with the heroes, Becker leads us to become involved more intensely—in their collective struggle.
Our involvement is heightened by the fact that we also share, uneasily, the point of view of Gaspard (Mark Michel). When he lands unexpectedly in their midst, transferred from another cell, the four original members of the escape team must decide whether or not to take him into their confidence. A focus for uncertainty and speculation throughout the film, Gaspard is never fully integrated into the group. We learn only about Gaspard’s past life, not about the lives of the others: as if only he has an existence outside the group. When Géo deals punishment to the plumbers who have robbed the cell (a seemingly trivial episode that’s in fact crucial to the film: it shows that the role of violence in the lives of the heroes is limited, specific, and ethical), Becker cuts away twice to Gaspard staring, transfixed—both frightened and fascinated. Here, as throughout the film, we’re reminded that Gaspard’s relationship with the group is fragile.
It’s because of Gaspard’s apartness that we perceive and value the others’ closeness; his alienation makes us realize the importance of their fellowship, just as his sense of not fully participating in the group drives him to take the measure of his solitude. The bonds between the original members of the team are celebrated again and again in relays of looks and smiles that express mutual trust, respect, and appreciation. These bonds are affirmed at each step of the journey to freedom and at each turning point in the group’s attempt to assimilate Gaspard. In one of the few moments in which Gaspard is apparently at one with the group, the five share Gaspard’s rice cake. Becker holds the camera on the wordless scene long after most directors would fade out—a fine instance of his career-long love of “temps morts,” the moments of relaxation and automatism in which we see the characters existing outside the framework created by the direct concerns of the plot.
Such moments (highlighted by Philip Kemp in his valuable 1998 Film Comment article on Becker’s career) have a lyrical, musical function. Le Trou is entirely without music until the end credits, and we can feel the narrative itself—with its ramifying forward progression and its contrasting themes of loyalty and mistrust—as a musical development. The wondrous climax of this development is the emergence of Manu and Gaspard through a manhole to stare at the prison walls from outside. The force of the scene—one of the most mysterious epiphanies in cinema—comes partly from the tension between the two men’s points of view. Gaspard, as usual, feels compelled to give voice to his wonder and his longing, while Manu’s silence implies that even now he is seeing not just for himself but for the group.
We have to have gone as far as we have with these five people, to have lived through their journey moment by moment, to feel the tension and meaning of this double gaze and the purity of its encounter with physical destiny. The world of Le Trou is a world of consciousness. The activities of the prisoners and the movement from inside to outside the prison in Le Trou are not seen in terms of communion and grace as they are in Bresson’s A Man Escaped; nor is Becker concerned with the critique of social differences, as Renoir is in Grand Illusion. The categories that concern Becker are those of experience: how reality is molded and altered by hands and tools, faith and doubt, language and perception. (The measure of Becker’s complete success in conveying both the flow and the form of experience is that after Le Trou is over, we recognize in it an affirmation of freedom.) In light of this affirmation, the virtues proved by the prisoners—meticulousness, inventiveness, and the ability to form a collective—become values in themselves. Perhaps Becker is, of all directors, the one who has embodied and articulated these values most firmly.
Chris Fujiwara is the author of Jacques Tourneur: The Cinema of Nightfall (Johns Hopkins Uinversity Press). He writes on film for Hermenaut, The Boston Phoenix, and other publications.