Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Le Trou (literally, The Hole) is a harrowing experience in claustrophobia, pressure and hope among inmates in a French prison. The hopes and aspirations of the overcrowded members of one prison cell are put to the test as they commit their trust to luck and each other, to effect a difficult escape. Jacques Becker’s final film is the most realistic prison break movie Savant’s seen – as we all know how these stories usually turn out, the tension and suspense grow, every desperate step of the way.
The La Santé is overcrowded because of construction, and five men are put into each cell instead of four. But in one cell, the inmates are secretly delighted. Claude Gaspard (Marc Michel), faces a long sentence and therefore can be trusted. He’ll be the extra man needed for a daring, complicated escape the men have planned, that requires nerve, deception, and a lot of digging. The scheme is such a beautifully executed communal effort, that when the first diggers break through to the outside world, they dutifully go back so that their comrades can escape too.
Prison escape movies are usually the kind of caper films that enliven the tension of criminals plotting and digging, with melodramatic character studies and bitter social comment. Le Trou begins with an ordinary-looking Frenchman staring at us from the yard of an auto shop, telling us that the story we are about to see is true, and that he was part of it. His name is Jean Keraudy, and Jacques Becker casts him as a participant in a real story based on his own life, as the ‘mastermind’ of the escape. The bit of grey sky in this first, documentary scene, is the last we’ll see for a long time.
Le Trou is concentrated on the chemistry and tensions between the five men in the crowded cell, who must live together while figuring out if the new man among them can be trusted to join in on the escape. The original four are serving long sentences, and when they find out that the handsome newcomer also is up for a twenty-year term, they decide to bring him in on the deal. The new man, Marc Michel (Roland Cassard in Demy’s Lola and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg) is initially confused but joins in on the plan, which requires digging bit by bit through the concrete floor of their cell.
Le Trou has so much outright work in it, it’s exhausting. The sound effects are perfectly pitched to make the use of a pick on concrete believeable. Once the diggers are into the sub-basement, they have to navigate a maze-like course and then dig an even tougher tunnel through creepy, cold underground passageways. While they work, it’s like they’re digging out of Hell itself. The effort required to deceive the guards is as trying as the digging, and everything must be built and carried out by five men in a room barely larger than a closet.
Forget about prison clichés. The guards and even the warden are nice guys, and the confines of the cell lead the men to become introverted rather than aggressive. The claustrophobia of the cell has become as unbearable for us as it is for the inmates, when we finally begin to penetrate the prison walls. With every new barrier that comes down, our world gets a little bit bigger, until …
With such forced intimacy, the dialogue in Le Trou comes in short, quiet bursts, and the acting soon breaks down into subtle looks on the men’s faces. One man acting out of sorts can easily upset the other four, as there’s a built-in incentive for someone to inform. There’s no overriding social statement here, just the urge toward freedom by inmates who want to stop being caged animals, and walk freely again. Le Trou obviously wasn’t shown in any kind of prison anywhere, but I think it would have gotten a standing ovation if it were.
The cast is uniformly excellent, and claimed in the production notes to have been drawn from unprofessionals. Catherine Spaak and another actress show up in abbreviated but important parts, but Savant doesn’t want to give out any more of the plot. Le Trou is the kind of movie that you’ll want to see uninterrupted.