“Our cell is a bit special. … We've got a lot to lose.” That's what inmate Claude Gaspard (Marc Michel) hears when he arrives in crowded Cell 6, Block 11, in Paris' La Santé Prison. His new cellmates — four of them, all crammed into a tiny room that they also share with stacks of cardboard — are tough, stern men, each doing hard time. And, as they reveal to Gaspard after making sure he can be trusted, they've decided to dig their way out via the sewer system. Jacques Becker's 1960 masterpiece, Le Trou, one of the most gripping of all French films, catalogs the methodical way this group of terse, no-nonsense prisoners goes about its daring, nearly impossible escape.
Becker captures and keeps our attention by focusing on the tactile. These men live in a world where objects are everything. Early on, a prison guard inspects boxes of food that have been sent to the prisoners: He slices every loaf of bread, every hunk of cheese, chops up rolls of salami and smoked fish and rummages through piles of sugar cubes to make sure nothing is hidden inside. It's a hypnotic scene, and the escape attempt hasn't even started yet.
The material world is foregrounded again once the men begin to dig: They fashion tools out of the metal frame of a folding bed. A tiny, periscope-like spyglass is made from a shard of broken mirror and a toothbrush. A cardboard-and-twine contraption is readied to make their blankets move as if someone were beneath them, so that they can work through the guards' nightly check-ins. We see how prisoners are forced to become resourceful just to survive on a daily basis, and how this in turn helps them become better at devising solutions to their problems. If you ever wind up in a French prison, don't smuggle in a file — just bring a DVD of this movie. It's practically a guide to breaking out.
Becker doesn't elide any detail, and he lets his scenes go on and on, so we understand just how much effort it all takes. It's agonizing to watch but never tedious or boring. As we witness these men work, we also watch them bond, and we see what they're made of — despite the relative lack of dialogue. Amid their silences, loyalties are built, sacrifices made. Somehow, as the situation becomes increasingly urgent, they become even more stoic. During one harrowing scene, we watch two of our protagonists, one standing on the other's shoulders, slowly circle around a pillar, quietly steering clear of the two guards strolling just a few feet away.
There's something weirdly Zen about these characters. Yes, they're eager to get out, but there's an air of resignation about them, too. It's not so much that they must escape — it's that they couldn't live with themselves if they didn't try. Even as these men take care to hide their handiwork during the long weeks of digging, there are times when they leave themselves open to fate, points of no return at which they chance it all and risk going down together rather than playing it safe. Le Trou is not just a movie about tough guys trying to break out of prison; it's a movie about doomed romantics.