Le Trou Review
José Giovanni is a fairly controversial figure in the landscape of French Cinema. Former criminal imprisoned before World War II for fraud, and later condemned to death in 1948 for a double murder, he was thought, at the beginning of his career in the cinema industry, to have been a member of the French Resistance during Nazi Occupation, attracting the interest and sympathy of great directors like Jacques Becker (Casque d’Or) or Jean-Pierre Melville (Army of Shadows), but he was later suspected to actually have been collaborating with the Nazis during the Occupation (this was never clearly proven though). His encounter with Becker led to a long career, first as dialogue writer and scriptwriter for Claude Sautet (Classe Tous Risques), Melville (The Second Wind) and Robert Enrico (The Wise Guys, The Last Adventure), and later as a director of emblematic French films such as Last Known Address with Lino Ventura (Army of Shadows) and Eva Green’s mother, Marlène Jobert (Rider on the Rain), or Two Men in the City, a powerful indictment of death penalty with Alain Delon (The Leopard) and Jean Gabin (Touchez Pas au Grisbi). Le Trou was Giovanni’s first adaptation of one of his novels (his first one, based on his own prison escape attempt).
Le Trou tells the true story of a group of inmates’ escape from La Santé prison in Paris: Roland (Jean Keraudy in his first and only role), Manu (Philippe Leroy, The Night Porter), Vosselin (Raymond Meunier, One Deadly Summer), Jo (Michel Constantin, Cold Sweat) and a newcomer in their cell, Claude (Marc Michel, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg).
Thanks to the classic elements of the prison escape film, Le Trou manages to continuously maintain effective suspense throughout its duration. However, the strength of the film resides firstly in direction choices consciously made by Becker that serve to describe the prison universe and the different stages of the escape project. On this aspect, Le Trou is, and remains, a masterpiece of penitentiary detail. The film is almost documentary, and even anthropological at times, in the richness of details of all kinds about the daily life of the prisoners and their tricks to foil the attention of their jailers. Another great strength of the film is the way Becker clearly emphasises on the fact that escaping requires a tremendous amount of effort! Not only is the supervision of the detainees continuous, interrupted only at some point during the night, the actual elements of the escape require strength and time, two factors addressed in the movie in remarkable manners rarely matched in this type of movies.
Additionally, the film benefitted greatly from Giovanni’s input. With his involvement, Becker’s project undoubtedly gained much in authenticity, and the meticulousness of the director for each detail finds its full use during the fascinating scenes detailing the painstaking work done by the prisoners to escape. During these sequences, the soundtrack is deliberately absent. Rather than music, Becker prefers immersing the audience in the concert of the deafened prison sounds. In these moments, Le Trou becomes a testament to the efficiency of asceticism direction. In a naturalist approach, Becker favoured close-ups and framing that accentuated, with its narrowness, the stifling aspect of the cell. Furthermore, the outside world is never showed, only suggested during sequences of package delivery or prisoners’ visits.
Finally what gives the film even more strength is the actors’ interpretation. Again, in a clear move rarely scene at the time in French Cinema, Becker decided to cast non-professional and relatively unknown actors, notably Kéraudy, a former prisoner who participated in real escapes. This aspect contributes greatly to the realism of the film and the fascination it exerts over viewers.
Le Trou was only just finished that its director disappeared at 53, in February 1960. Even if the authors of the French New Wave, which had just started to bury cinematographic academism, didn’t dislike the movie, the public was not receptive. Le Trou was accused of taking the side of the prisoners, and therefore criminals. To compensate for the commercial failure of the film, the producer then amputated the film by about 20 minutes. Yet, with moments of great intensity, it presents itself as an extraordinary cinema experience in which images reveal, as in all great visual poetry, the invisible universe of feelings and values. It took some time for Le Trou to become an undeniable reference to the equal of Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped, to which Le Trou can legitimately be related to, and later Don Siegel’s Escape from Alcatraz.
Melville considered Le Trou, as “the greatest French film of all time". Nearly 60 years after being made, it remains without any doubt one of Becker’s most beautiful films and a model of direction.
Le Trou is released on blu-ray disc on 21st August by Studio Canal.
The film is presented in a glorious new 4K transfer, respecting the original 1.66:1 ratio, which does justice to Ghislain Cloquet’s (Tess) extraordinarily minimalist black & white cinematography. The amount of grain is perfectly adequate and I haven’t noticed any defects during viewing. Great job from Studio Canal.
On the sound side, the Blu-ray disc only offers a very efficient Mono French track, with optional English subtitles, especially during the digging sequences.
On the bonus side, the disc offers five very interesting extras:
Interview with Ginette Vincendeau (7 min)
Ginette Vincendeau is a professor of Film Studies at King's College London. In this new interview, in English, she explains what Le Trou is about, how Becker and Giovanni decided to work together, the link between the movie and Giovanni’s life, the cast assembled by Becker, the level of realism of the film, Becker’s talent in the identification to the characters despite the fact that they are criminal. This is, as usual with Vincendeau, a very insightful interview full of interesting facts and anecdotes.
Interview with Jean Becker (20 min)
Jean Becker is Jacques Becker’s son and a director himself of such films as One Deadly Summer in 1983 and My Afternoons with Margueritte in 2010. In this new interview, in French with English subtitles, cut with extract of a French programme shot at the time of release, the director, who was Assistant Director on Le Trou, explains his work on the film, the character played by Kéraudy (referred throughout the extras as Roland), the other actors, the noise in prisons at the time, the realism of the cell which impacted on the filming, Cloquet’s cinematography, how the spy-hole shots were created, his father’s death after editing the film, his father’s views on the New Wave, and his uncredited role.
Both interviews with Vincendeau and Becker contain spoilers and it is recommended to watch them after viewing the film.
Interview with Philippe Leroy (6 min)
In this fairly recent interview, in Italian with English subtitles, the actor explains how he got involved in the film, his role in the movie, the other actors and the success of the movie. This is a brief extra more interesting for Leroy’s anecdotes about the beginning of his career.
Interview with Jean Kéraudy (7 min)
This is the French programme used at the beginning of Jean Becker’s interview, in French with English subtitles, in which the former inmate tells his story (including his real name), his 10 attempts to escape prison, his ‘normal life’, his role in the film. This is a promotional interview for the release of the film but it remains an interesting extra.
L’envers du décor (33 min)
L’envers du décor literally means ‘behind-the-scenes’ in French. This is an extra, in French with English subtitles, produced at the time of the first release of Le Trou on DVD by Studio Canal, hence the sometimes annoying reframing of the image of the interviews. It features long extracts of the film and interviews of notably Giovanni and Michel. This extra is sometimes a bit redundant with the other extras but still worth watching for the additional interviewees and the pictures taken on the set.