Le Trou (The Hole)
Director: Jacques Becker
Starring: Philippe Leroy, Marc Michel, Jean Keraudy
I can’t think of a way to start this review other than by saying I really enjoy this movie. I’ve seen it twice now, once in my initial blitzkrieg through the films from 1001 Movies, and once more tonight to refresh myself on it in order to write this piece, and both times, the movie has utterly sucked me in. It’s hypnotic, it’s engrossing, and I find it fascinating.
Claude Gaspard (Michel) opens the film by being transferred to a new cell at La Santé prison. His new cell has four inmates in it, and, headed by Manu (Leroy) and Roland (Keraudy), the four quickly decide to let Gaspard in on their escape plan. They slowly and carefully dig their way through various barriers, keeping their eyes peeled for guards and finding ingenious ways to make tools. But Gaspard is still the new one in the group, and there is tension between him and the rest of the room.
Le Trou is based on a real story. And when I say “based on a true story,” I mean “obsessive about the real details of a real prison break from 1947 to the point of insanity.” The film opens with a statement that the story is true, but even so as the film progresses, I was thinking to myself, “Yeah, okay, there has to be some embellishment here.” For everything I can tell, for all the research I did, however, I don’t think there was. The prison was recreated with meticulous detail. The stories of the process of the prison break were taken from the prisoners themselves. It gives the film an extra sense of impressiveness. This really happened.
The entire drama of the film is focused on watching this group of men dig their way out of their prison cell. What sets Le Trou apart from other classic prison break films, though, is that Becker is bound and determined to show us exactly what it takes to break out of prison. It’s practically a master class. He makes this more than clear when the men take their first step breaking out of their cell. They must pound their way through the cement floor in order to gain access to the cellar underneath. Becker gives us a four minute long unbroken shot of Roland, then Manu, pounding relentlessly on the floor with a makeshift hammer. Again and again and again. There is no cut between Roland starting and then a hole that appeared as if from nowhere. No, we are actually watching a dude digging his way through the floor, and it’s hard. And it takes a lot of work. And it’s utterly engrossing. Becker shows us many similar shots in the film: filing through a bar, banging through the concrete in another wall, and he is relentless in giving each of the processes the amount of time it needs. But by not compromising and giving in to movie editing expectations, we are drawn into the world of the prison break in an unnervingly realistic way.
Additionally, Le Trou is all about precision and ingenuity. We watch with almost fetishistic attention to detail as tools are constructed from simple materials. There’s the intense close up on Roland’s hands as he makes a “periscope” out of a small illegal mirror, thread, and a toothbrush. But what’s more, we watch him, in real time, make the necessary piece of equipment. In a thrilling scene, we watch Roland and Manu avoid the night watch guardsmen by the closest of margins in a breathless manner. When the prisoners run into the issue of keeping track of time, they find a way to construct a rudimentary clock. I’m fascinated.
Becker used mostly nonprofessional actors as the prisoners, even going to the extent of casting one of the actual prisoners involved in the real prison break as Roland. I find nonprofessional actors to be a bit of a crapshoot: they can either turn in wonderfully understated yet compelling performances, or they find themselves in over their head and are incapable of delivering the needed emotional impact. Frankly, I think the nonprofessionals in Le Trou hit it out of the park. This is a film all about tension, and underplaying the lines while maintaining unflinching eye contact amps up the tension like crazy. All the actors do a great job, but Leroy as Manu, the defacto leader, was most impressive. The man oozes screen presence. In fact, he currently has 183 titles listed to his name on IMDB; while Le Trou was his first film, and he was a nonprofessional actor, he was such a standout star he has gone on to a highly successful film career.
The black and white photography is gorgeously stark. There are many different types of black and white cinematography; in the case of Le Trou, it’s fantastically crisp. Because it’s set in a prison, it should go without saying that there is limited set dressing. There is such simple beauty in the shots of faces of our actors against the white cement wall of their cell. Watch Roland and Manu walk down a dark, black tunnel illuminated only with a small candle. It made me smile, it was so clear and exciting. This is a beautiful film.
Becker is stringent when it comes to the use of sound in Le Trou. There is no background music at all. Given that the actors are nonprofessionals, there are long stretches of silence. Furthermore, I’m convinced that Becker actually cuts sound in some scenes, removing all background noise to hear absolutely nothing as the scene progresses. This fits the film. The tension of watching the escape plans being realized would not work nearly as well if there was some generic strings-laden score whining in the background. Silence seems a boldly appropriate choice.
There is also a subtle social commentary to Le Trou. Gaspard is the only prisoner that we get specific background information on, the only one whose crime is spelled out. He is also always continually on the outside, a fact which seems to be related to the fact that we learn he is from the upper middle class. He is hesitantly welcomed into what is clearly a very tight knit quartet of others, and he is treated with standoffish restraint throughout. He cannot buy their loyalty, and of all the prisoners in the cell, we see Gaspard participating in prison break-related activities the least. The other prisoners, although not explicitly stated, seem to be of the lower middle class, and their crimes are never even hinted at. Even in prison, even in their bid for freedom, there are distinctions being made and invisible lines being drawn.
I really like this movie. The slow pace works for me. The process of the prison break is fascinating. The acting fits the purpose of the story well. The photography is terrific. I know it’s not exactly the most eloquent way to say it, but heck, I just plain like this movie.
Arbitrary Rating: 9/10.