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Jacques Becker, Excavator

Le Trou (Jacques Becker, 1960)

EssayPart of Issue #13: So This Is Silence

Yet we love those heavy materials which Flaubert’s sentences lift and let fall again with the intermittent noise of an excavator… Fortunate those who are alive to this obsessive rhythm…

— Marcel Proust

In the later years of his life, misunderstood and ridiculed, his work as a director forgotten by all but a few loyalists, Erich von Stroheim was known to recall, in detail, all the material minutiae of his long-ago butchered films: the furnishing of a set, architectural features, a place setting, the buttons of a uniform, draperies, furs, a timepiece, a cigarette holder. However, on the subject of film technique, he would have nothing at all to say. This was characteristic of Stroheim’s priorities: his concern for authenticity was such that both economy and polite taste were sacrificed at its altar; he submerged his dramas within a bristling canvas of contrasts and excesses, at times concentrated in a singular look, a gesture, an object, more often spilling across the frame in a great flood. As in Greed (1924), Stroheim stages the marriage of McTeague and Trina so it shares a frame with a funeral procession happening concurrently out the window, just behind the priest administering the vows—like a picture from Bruegel, the world in all its variety, all at once; a scene which is followed by a grisly feast with the whole extended family, a crew of all wicked shapes and sizes, all breathlessly feeding themselves, father- and mother-in-law picking clean a whole hog skull—he the upper portion, she the mandible—pausing only to wipe the sweat from their face. The style of Stroheim’s films yielded to his desire for maximum fidelity to the world as it appears, to the harsh radiance of things. And so he did away with most optical tricks, elaborate camera movements and funny angles to achieve this directness; his camera was like a wide open mouth, inhaling a buffet of sordid particulars. For his producers and his public, it was all too much reality.

Greed (Erich von Stroheim, 1924)

On May 12, 1957, Stroheim was dead, and two days later his casket was carried through a drizzly countryside and buried at the cemetery in Maurepas in central France. At the front of this funeral train, holding the Legion of Honor awarded to the deceased on his deathbed, was Jacques Becker.

Becker (like Jean Renoir, his mentor) was a follower of Stroheim, and traces of the same baroque earthliness can be found in his work. These sympathies are most acutely felt in Becker’s details, which he paints with extreme care, lending them an autonomy all their own; and the pockets of slowed-down, swollen emphasis that continually plug up his films, where all forward momentum is pooled and stagnated for a time, creating a fleeting habitat for life to happen on something like its own terms. It’s in these passages of “dead time”—Becker’s own term—that the many secondary individuals who people the margins of his films percolate up and glow with unusual luminosity. Like the owners of the brasserie downstairs in Antoine et Antoinette (1947)—Becker’s ball-of-yarn through a working-class Parisian neighborhood—who pass into view now and again as the thread of the central couple’s story so wills, and who remain indifferent to its developments all the while, caught up as they are in preparations for their daughter’s wedding. In an exemplary episode, the main character, Antoine, sulks over to the bar, exhausted and distraught over his lost wallet and the winning lottery ticket in it; he’s let in and served a drink, despite the wedding party in progress in the back of the shop. Becker then detours to take in the crowd assembled there in that cramped room: the bride in her veil earnestly absorbed at the piano, playing a little concert for the guests, her talents unspectacular but that hardly matters; the father, beaming, circling the room handing out cigars to the men, a vividly rendered lot worthy of Stroheim. In a strange turn of events, it’s discovered that, by chance, the bridegroom had found the missing wallet that morning on the subway, and the wallet is returned to Antoine—only to find the winning ticket is not there, but a different one. At this Antoine breaks down, losing grips with reality; the party is interrupted by the commotion and the assembled spill into the bar-room to get a look at this stranger and his private crisis. Coming to his senses, realizing the trouble he’s caused, Antoine apologizes and makes to leave. The uncommon punctuation of the scene comes with the bride, picked out in the center of the group by the pale illumination of her dress, saying with disarming tenderness and infinite understanding: “You’re excused.” And so Becker deflates any straightforward tension with this plain gesture of mercy, striking in its fullness and outsized agency, the way it attests to a life force not quite accountable to the drama, existing independently of it and looking in from without.

In short, Becker was concerned with reality, but it was not by a lulling kind of naturalism that he aimed to get at it—the kind that is automatic and inconspicuous. Rather, reality emerges in Becker as a shock-effect, asserting itself in pointed fits and jabs so the weight and physical consequence of his world will often surprise, even frighten us. In Touchez pas au grisbi (1954), Becker takes his gangster scenario and modifies it with these hard-edged physics, fixing the business so it is solidly earthbound. The governing principle of the film is the hypnotism of lucid, decisive movements, Becker’s and his character’s both. Much of the action in the film is subordinated to this obsession, taking in the way these underworld professionals move about their environment, launching silently into maneuvers fine-tuned by habit and skill, whether making the bed or shaking off a tail. When Jean Gabin forces his way into Jeanne Moreau’s apartment to get answers about Riton, his abducted pal, the volley of open-palm slaps he delivers around the room are quick and cracking and painful, neither simulated nor held back. They hurt because they belong to the real world; Becker would never make such a thing easy to swallow.

This kind of everyday violence, this casual collision of things—there’s much of it in his films, even the comedies—ricochets sharply off of Becker’s otherwise steady rhythms, keyed so low throughout. It’s an anomalous bit of strong-arming and exertion in an unbroken stream of lightness and perfect ease. Likewise, as the time for the culminating shootout approaches, Becker has laid out the variables so plainly—namely the actors involved, whom we’ve come to understand as full-fleshed people—and he’s withheld the inevitable release with such patience, that when the shooting begins, the shock of it is matter-of-fact, unsentimental and resonant. Machine gun fire, explosions, shattering windows, screams—all ring out with sober clarity. The sense of solidity that characterizes Becker’s world makes its coming-undone always a stomach-turning, revolutionary event—and this extends to the lives in it, which are just as solid and just as often crumble before our eyes.

In each of his films, Becker had a way of galvanizing a feel for the tangible world into the fore of his images. This tendency reached its fullest expression in Le Trou (1960), Becker’s last film. It’s a prison escape film of Shaker-like construction. It begins with Jean Keraudy, a former convict who models a version of himself in the film, whom we’ve evidently interrupted at work under the hood of a car, whispering to an engine, and who turns—his eyes finding ours—and delivers a direct address to the camera: “My friend Jacques Becker recreated a true story in all its detail. My story. It took place in 1947, at the Santé prison.” Immediately we are in the transparent attitude of an actuality, a report. And Becker wastes no time in sketching out the arena of hard surfaces that is the prison—iron door locks, raw cement walls, cheap slatted floors, wood moldings, dirty tin cups, scratchy linens, pieces of glass and bits of cardboard, which he then documents for the rest of the film being chewed into, clawed at, torn open, disassembled and refashioned by his tight cast of five inmates—visionary men who see a crude metal bed frame and say: “Tomorrow, this will be our crowbar.” Becker sets these activities in a soup of pervasive ambient and room tones, so that the slightest percussion crackles. This charged soundscape bears weight on the crew’s plan of attack: rather than chip away at their hole in the ground at night under the cover of darkness, as is the genre convention, Becker’s men know to do their digging during the day when the prison is most alive with activity and sound—and to get it over with fast, which means loudly. Becker proceeds to show how the plan unfolds, in an aberrant, earth-shaking sequence: a simple medium-close shot aimed at the floor frames the inmates’ forearms as they take turns—in near real-time—bludgeoning the floor of the cell with a jerry-rigged steel instrument, wrapped in cloth to cushion their hands; the cement layers peel away slowly, pulverized into finer and finer chunks, each person handing the baton off to the other as exhaustion takes hold. It’s real, sweaty, cacophonous work, which Becker stages literally: actual cement, actual blows, a genuine physical happening before the camera. This is not acting as such; this is action. The plan at first seems impossible, and even absurd—surely someone will hear—but it’s working, and we’re presented with the visual and intellectual shock of this solid built-world melting from order to entropy, the terrifying capacity of men to tear it all down at will.