There’s something exceedingly satisfying about a well-made escape film. Perhaps it would not be pushing it too far to suggest that the notion of the prison break serves as a kind of allegory for the filmic enterprise in general. As expansive as its imaginative world may be, film inherently involves its viewers in a kind of enclosure, a world set aside from the world as such. Although we are hardly kept against our will, for the duration of the film’s running time we are cloistered within the narrative and visual structure set before us. We cede something of our autonomy and succumb to a logic separated from the everyday, from reality.
At the same time, all films — even the most surrealistic, the most mannered — attempt in some way to break through to that outside reality, to inflect our understanding of every average everydayness, to register an impact upon our lives and the way we experience those lives. A film burrows into our subconscious, evades our resistances and repressions, attempting to irrupt into the light of day, to affect our understanding of the world. Film, a contrivance made of light that mimics motion and thus seems alive, strives to break out of the imaginative and into the real, to become somehow and impossibly alive.
The escape film encapsulates the trajectory of film with a particular clarity. At its heart, the escape film charts a directed motion from an interior, closed space to an exterior open world — the move from a contrived and artificial realm bound by the rules of genre and the filmic apparatus to the freedom of an expression beyond the curtailments of those rules. This genre of film is thus about motion; if film is created by simulated motion, the escape film is an allegory of that motion.
Furthermore, an escape film has, at its center, a concern with process. The escapees set in motion various processes that will ultimately (they hope) effect their release. Similarly, a film, both with respect to its narrative and its visual design, sets in motion various filmic processes that culminate in the climax of that film, the moment in which it attempts to transcend its fictive ontology, the moment it seeks to puncture the real. Thus, without ever overtly acknowledging it, the escape film is about the filmic process; it’s a slyly subtle self-reflexive genre of film and Jacques Becker’s 1960 Le Trou (The Hole), now showing at theThe Film Forum in New York City, may be the perfect incarnation of that genre.
Philippe Leroy, Michel Constantin, Jean Keraudy, Raymond Meunier, and Marc Michel in Le trou (1960)
Even among cinephiles, the name Jacques Becker may not be immediately familiar. He’s perhaps best remembered as being the assistant to Jean Renoir during some of that director’s finest films including La Grande Illusion (1938) and The Rules of the Game (1939). Becker was held captive during the German occupation of France in WWII and afterward became the director of his own films. He made a series of remarkable films that were hugely influential for the nouvelle vague. Touchez pas au Grisbi (1953) redefined the heist film (in part, by notshowing the heist) and cleverly contributed to what we might term a cinema of misdirection. Le Trou was revered by François Truffaut, while Jean-Pierre Melville simply pondered whether it might not be “the greatest French film of all time”.
Le Trou is an escape film under the microscope, analyzed down to its basic elemental foundation. Becker hired non-actors to play the roles (including Jean Keraudy who was one of the actual escapees in the true story on which the film is based) in order to heighten the realism of the film. Becker believed that if we recognized an actor “playing a role”, we would no longer view the film as an enactment of an actual event. Our familiarity with the history of that actor’s work would force us to become further removed from the immersive environment Becker sought to create.
This is a decision that could have gone horribly wrong; after all, what lifts you out of a story more than ham-fisted acting (acting that constantly reminds you of its artifice, poorly concealed)? Instead, these non-actors perform a remarkable feat. Their natural discomfort before the camera heightens the sense of disquietude we are to imagine they are experiencing in prison. These are the least arrogant escapees in film and therefore among the most sympathetic. They cringe before the camera in an unaffected manner that reads as a deeply felt urgency for release.
Many escape films embroider the main plot archetype with non-essential material; backstories detailing how the escapees wound up incarcerated (often wrongfully), a prolonged examination of the planning stage complete with competing points of view, a detailing of the abuses suffered within prison, perhaps even an examination of life following the escape. Le Trou eschews all such incidental material as otiose. Although Becker provides some indications of Claude Gaspard’s (Marc Michel) ties to the outside world, this information serves primarily to demonstrate that he, as the newest occupant of the cell, is a potential threat to the escape plan.
The preponderance of the film’s running time focuses on the escape itself: the gritty details of the actual manual labor involved in puncturing the cell floor, the search for a viable exit from the subterranean depths of the prison while evading the night watch, and then more excruciating manual labor. Few escape films lavish so much time on the work involved in effecting one’s illicit release from incarceration. In the abstract, it might seem like a gloriously ill-conceived approach to filmmaking. For minutes on end, we sit and watch these men chipping away at concrete, getting tired, and allowing the next man in line to continue the task.
In another scene, two of the prisoners (Keraudy and Philippe Leroy) explore the basement, seeking a path that will lead them outside of the prison. Every walkway they traverse appears to be the same. The camera is set squarely behind them and repeatedly we watch them recede into the distance, the light of their meager flame disappearing into the darkness of the void.
Such sequences should become monotonous but they don’t. Instead, they lull the viewer into a kind of meditative reverie — every chipped flake of concrete, every emerging stone buried within the depth of the walls, every recession into a dark passageway transmutes into a kind of silent prayer for the viewer, a holy rite to which we bear witness, yearning for the moment when these unfortunates (and even that ascription is suspect — we don’t know what these men are accused of aside from Gaspard, really) will step beyond their confinement. Our involvement in their labor becomes our complicity in their act.
Karl Marx, in his discussion of the slave/master dialectic, proclaimed that, in one sense, the slave is fortunate for the slave learns that through labor one can alter one’s environment, that work is efficacious and that man is able to leave his mark upon the seemingly indifferent face of the world (the master, having no need to exert himself, learns no such thing). Something of this notion seems to have filtered its way into Becker’s conception of Le Trou.
The majority of the film concentrates on the monumental nature of human endeavor funneled into a singular act driven by the hunger for liberty. But what is important here is that it is in that endeavor itself, in that act of labor, that freedom resides. The actual escape is nearly incidental — in striving so hard to effect their release, in that effort and strain, they are more free than they ever could be in the outside world. Watch the faces of the guards in the early scene when Gaspard talks to the warden. Then watch the faces of the conspirators, the escapees. The guards may, in the prison, be the masters but their countenances betray a living death. The escapees, animated by labor and desire, truly live.
The Film Forum in New York City is showing Le Trou from Wednesday 28 June through Tuesday 4 July. This is a film well worth seeing.