Tim Cawkwell's Cinema

Intelligible writing on intelligent film

Reflection on Bresson 19: THE LOCKED-UP LIFE

Ever since Melville pronounced – in an interview in 1971 – “It’s Bresson who has always been Melvillian" and not Melville that is Bressonian, the link between the two film-makers, often guessed at, was now openly forged. It seemed a question of style: Lino Ventura in Deuxième Souffle, for example, was a Melvillian 'model' on Bressonian lines. Melville countered that Bresson had refined his style from seeing Melville's Le Silence de la mer (1949) in which the actors are like statues, so that the spectator concentrates on the face and on the sound. “Le Journal d’un curé de campagne is Le Silence de la mer,” as Melville put it.

                As soon as it was released in 1960, Becker’s Le Trou / The Hole was seen as Bressonian in its content, drawing some of its inspiration from Bresson’s Un Condamné à mort s’est échappé about the escape of Devigny (renamed Fontaine for the film) from the hands of the Gestapo in Montluc prison in 1943. The French have known it all this time; I've only learnt it recently thanks to finding Le Trou on Amazon Prime. Like Bresson's film, Le Trou draws on a 'true' story, the novel by José Giovanni that draws on an actual attempted escape from the prison of La Santé in Paris, in which Giovanni had taken part along with Roland Barbat and others. In Bresson it is one man in a cell, an exemplar of his loners (the cure in Journal, Michel in Pickpocket, the donkey in Balthasar, Guillaume in Le Diable Probablement, and so on); in Becker it is a group of five bon gars prisoners plus some sympa French warders. However, the prison cell in the two films has the same feel, even if La Santé replaced the wooden doors that so assisted Fontaine in Montluc with metal ones. The tools of escape are fashioned from metal fittings in the cell; useful props are secreted away from other parts of the prison – a spoon by Fontaine, two small bottles to make an hourglass by ‘Monsignor’ in Le Trou. In both films the prisoners display a miraculous creativity, and a capacity for patient hard work with minimal tools: Fontaine and his spoon (top image), Roland using his metal bed leg (bottom image) and brute strength to smash his way through cement floors and walls. Filming the hands was important for Becker too, even if he did not take it to the Bressonian level. 

Secondly, by 1956 Bresson was completely committed to the use of non-professionals as his models, while Becker, who had worked successfully with French stars of the early 1950s, selected a quintet of largely unknown faces for Le Trou

Geo, on the right, is played by Michel Constantin in his first film, having been picked out from the volleyball team which he captained and in which Jacques’ son, Jean, played. He went on to have a successful film career over twenty years. The other non-professional was Jean Keraudy, a pseudonym for Roland Barbat, who played the creative mastermind of the escape plan. In fact, just as Bresson read the account of Devigny’s escape and conceived his film from it, so Becker seems to have responded to Giovanni's account in all its physicality, and, just as Bresson admired Devigny, to have relished Barbat’s ingenuity. The son of a blacksmith, he acquired the title ‘The Escapee King (Roi d’évasion)’, for his adventures during the Occupation, burgling mairies and préfectures, going to prison, and then escaping. The attempt to escape from La Santé in 1947 would have been his masterpiece – if only it had come off. By the time the film was made he was going straight and Becker uses him to introduce the film with an address to camera: “My friend Jacques Becker has traced in all its details a true account – mine.” This is an echo of Bresson’s epigraph to Condamné that the tale is told ‘without adornments’.

       Le Trou is significantly longer than Un Condamné – 132 minutes to Bresson's 98 – and has many more words. It takes time to explicate the situation of the five prisoners and their relationships, but once this is done about thirty minutes in, the narrative of the attempted escape is told with a marvellous briskness, as it is in Condamné.

      ‘Attempted.’ Here is a spoiler: in Le Trou the escape doesn't come off – whereas in Condamné it does, salvifically, miraculously, triumphantly. Now, we are told it comes off by the title: Un Condamné à mort s’est échappé /A Man has escaped from sentence of death. Le Trou works completely differently: the suspense is in the execution of the means of escape, as it is in Bresson, but the major suspense – since the spectator is willing them onto success – is in whether the prisoners will finally achieve it.

      They do not, and their failure is as futile as the story of Condamné is salvific. The former is a parable of despair, the latter a parable of faith and of divine grace, evidence in Bresson’s words of an “invisible hand over the prison directing what happens. . .” Becker’s nihilism occupies the same philosophical territory as Melville's in Deuxième Souffle and in Armée des ombres / Army of Shadows. Betrayal is the natural behaviour of humans in extremis. In my ‘New Filmgoer’s Guide to God’ (here’s a link to the Kindle edition) I wrote of Bresson and Melville being “two halves of a sphere”: they understand each other's universe, but one interprets it theistically, the other atheistically. I should have said that the Melvillian half of the sphere is also occupied by Becker. The two directors held each other in high esteem, according to French Wikipedia, and indeed in his long interview with Rui Nogueira in the 1960s, Melville said that Becker was dissatisfied with the quality of the scenes shot at the Billancourt studios (whether all of them or some of them we are not told) and reshot them at Melville's own studios in the Rue Jenner. Melville liked the stature and look of Michel Constantin too, choosing him to play Alban in Deuxième Souffle.

      There is at first sight a close connection between Un Condamné and Le Trou in the inexpressiveness of the acting style. The protagonists speak in matter-of-fact voices and express their thoughts in looks as much as words. Most striking is the practised movements of the prisoners, especially those of Roland, in going about their business, as if inspiration and perspiration were natural habits. He reminds the Bressonian spectator of Kassagi in Pickpocket, the prestidigitator – and professional pickpocket – who acted as technical advisor to Bresson. However, the two styles have an essential divide: Becker’s was to impose an inexpressiveness, ‘the voluntary inexpressive’, while Bresson’s was to release an expressiveness through the suppression of all acting mannerisms, ‘the involuntary expressive’.

      There seems to be another link between Becker and Bresson in the scene where Gaspard has a visit from his sister-in-law and talks to her through a screen. This is a straight copy from Pickpocket surely? Except that it surely is not: Le Trou was shot between 21 July and 9 October 1959, and Pickpocket was only released in December of that year. So it looks purely like coincidence, perhaps not so surprising in the circumstances since communicating through doors, through walls and through screens is one of the most striking aspects of prison existence.

      What does link the three film-makers is the craftsmanship of their film-making and especially of their camerawork in capturing the grey and grimy nature of doing time in prison. Ghislain Cloquet was the cameraman on Le Trou, and later worked for Bresson on Balthasar and Mouchette. Also linking the three is their experience of the Occupation during the war, and in Bresson's and Becker's cases actual incarceration in a German POW camp. Inextricably linked to this time is the futility of Camus’ ‘L’Étranger’ and Sartre’s ‘Le Mur’, a futility that metamorphosed into the fashionable – and atheist – existentialism of post-war Paris. Bresson seems very much the odd one out in seeking a way out from this hopelessness even as he acknowledged the power of the existentialist idea.

      Final point: while in his ‘cinematography’ Bresson aimed to strip down a story to its essentials, one important adornment he preserves for Condamné is the Kyrie from Mozart’s Mass in C minor, which makes important appearances in the film to shift the narrative to a different dimension*. Becker has no such comforts: Le Trou is striking in our music-saturated age for the way it eschews music completely so that the atmosphere and the tension arise solely from the narrative. It is a considerable achievement, almost as fine as Bresson's.


*The introduction is accompanied by all the first part of the Kyrie; during the film, the principal phrase in the introduction, especially in the minor, punctuates the narrative at several places; the final scene uses the last part of the Kyrie in the major.


June 2020