A striking thing about Jacques Becker, one of the last great classicists in French cinema, is the range of genres with which he was apparently at total ease. Astonishingly, the great critic and filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier recently said that Becker was maybe greater than Howard Hawks in this respect—a startling admission given that Hawks is an even more sacrosanct name for cinephiles of Tavernier’s age and predilection than his more obscure French contemporary. Becker, Tavernier said, had “an enormous range, and always [made films] with the same deeply organic quality.” Both Hawks and Becker are fascinated by genre, by the way that they can seemingly countermand inbuilt expectations by cultivating an atmosphere of life-like behavior that at least appears to undercut the revolving gears of plot. Both directors have come to be known as the makers of plotless movies, in their way; a barrage of human detail overwhelms each of their films, and likewise as their careers rolled on each grew less enamored with the nuts and bolts of the storytelling process than with simply hanging out with their characters for a couple of hours. Becker’s stated ideal, which could easily have been Hawks’s, was a movie “with no beginning, no end, and virtually no story.”
Particularly in Becker, the downplayed, naturalistic acting style of his performers, as well as a good eye for structure—emphasizing the interactions within a given scene over any overriding narrative or thematic concerns, even while smoothly operating the machinery behind the curtain—and a careful, detail-oriented attention to set design suggest myriad pathways away from archetype and caricature. His movies are thick with a climate of casual interaction, the sedate rhythms of a working life well-lived. Antoine et Antoinette (1947), Rendez-vous de juillet (1949), Édouard et Caroline (1951): great film after great film about the intersection of romance and means; while never at the forefront of his work, the inevitable class ruptures and clashes of culture and taste are never far from the surface. Every film by Becker, and as a whole they cover virtually every point on the spectrum of French commercial cinema of the period, could therefore be labelled a character study of some description. But to really understand Becker, one must first take stock of an equally striking aspect of his career when seen in total. The three films currently showing on MUBI—Falbalas (1945), Touchez pas au grisbi (1954), and Le trou (1960)—provide a perfect framework for pondering this most idiosyncratic of classicists.
Becker’s few truly famous movies, like many of Hawks’s, all endure either as standouts in their genre or as turning points in the careers of their stars. This puts Becker in the strange position of being well-represented in official histories of French cinema without being all that well-known. Thus Touchez pas au grisbi, his only gangster movie, is hailed as a standout French crime film, despite looking and sounding like nothing that came before or would come after it. Critics and historians tend to point to its centrality to the revival of Jean Gabin as a major presence in French film. The star’s reputation had taken a hit after the war, and Becker virtually single-handedly reanimated his career, giving him an edge to exploit for years afterward. These histories traditionally imagine Touchez pas au grisbi as an antecedent, a stepping stone, to Jean-Pierre Melville’s Bob le flambeur (1956), an even more influential crime film from the same period. But who could imagine a temperament further from Melville’s than that of Jacques Becker?
Melville shares a taste for plot as a set of moving mechanical parts with Becker, who made many movies where different parts of the narrative revolve and slot into place imperceptibly in the background of otherwise extemporaneous and quotidian scenes. In Antoine et Antoinette, for example, a lottery ticket lost and then recovered is the pretext for Becker’s characters to interact spontaneously (on the level of the scene)—a style that could be called a kind of “over-plenty of life,” to borrow a phrase from J.M.G. Le Clezio—and mechanically (on the level of structure), clicking together like the internal mechanisms of a machine, much like the one that Antoine (Roger Pigaut) operates ceaselessly in the early passages of the film. But in Melville, the machine-motion extends to the realm of the physical: his characters are passive automatons, rarely exuberant or gregarious, as with their equivalents in Becker.
Touchez pas au grisbi
In Touchez pas au grisbi Gabin is more restrained than a typical Becker hero, if not exactly in the robotic fashion of Melville’s heroes. Unlike his counterparts in the earlier films, Gabin’s performance does not rely as much on the perpetual motion of stepping in and out of different interactions so much as it does on the quiet interplay of gesture that constitutes his great familiarity with his settings. It is an extremely relaxed performance, full of the kind of naturalistic detail only someone with Becker’s mind could dream up. The first scene of the film is set in a restaurant that Gabin’s gangster navigates as if it were his own living room; part of the essence of his character is that, like would-be fans of the film itself, Gabin’s Max has grown weary of the conventions of gangsterism. He places great value on domesticity: the restaurant is virtually rented for evenings at a time to ensure its isolation from the bourgeois world outside. Groups looking for a late-night snack are turned away at the door, protesting at the evident wealth of empty tables inside. As the owner quietly directs them to the restaurant opposite, the patrons inside mock the pitiful middle-class manners of the departing group, all the while being blanketed from the real world themselves by their own petit-bourgeois pretensions. Later in the film, in one of Touchez pas au grisbi’s most justly famous scenes, Gabin takes his partner to a hideout on the other side of Paris his buddy had no idea existed. While the narrative is at an early peak—both men have been stalked individually by would-be assassins trying to get their hands on loot from a recent large-scale robbery—Becker switches to his most placid register and records the two men quietly eating a meal of bread and pâté and then preparing themselves for bed.
This moment of pause gets at the heart both of what is interesting about Becker more generally—
whatever the project might be, imagining creative outlets for these kind of expressive asides is where the bulk of his interest lies—as well as specifically in regards to the way Falbalas, Touchez pas au grisbi
, and Le trou
form a (plausibly imaginary) trio at the center of his body of work. Falbalas
, his third feature film,exemplifies the early tenets of his career: rich with characterization, full of playful histrionics that dazzlingly revitalize conventions of the genre, and a plot that points towards a certain serious-mindedness that the director goes on to largely ignore. A plot summary would not do justice to the strange intensity of feeling in some of this movie’s dialogues nor to the unbridled frivolity of many of the scenes around them, a mix that is pure Becker.
A florid, detail-oriented anti-drama, Falbalas is digressionary, slight, full of beauty and shrewd observation. One moment that sticks out: a secretary, keen to eavesdrop on her boss, moves to a door through which she can hear a conversation between the boss and his lover. When she realizes that her spying is limited by the distance of the door to the couple on the other side, she fussily moves through several stacks of chairs nearby and heads to a different door on the other side of the room, an action that takes up several seconds of screen-time, which Becker records without any abbreviation. Falbalas is full of this volleying motion between story moments (the tryst between the boss and his lover) and go-nowhere detour (the chairs and the spying); it's an enriching process, never one that detracts from Becker’s concerns within sequences. But when the director is forced to play to the rules of the genre—or in the case of Falbalas, the simple requirement that this otherwise light story be resolved as a tragedy of hubris—his innovations are muted, his flair for characterization curbed by the demands of the genre. Within the space of a few minutes, Philippe (Raymond Rouleau), rejected by his lover, transforms from a capricious, full-bodied human, able to break out against the expectations of the story and impetuously guide both the trajectory of his own sad romantic life as well as that of the movie itself, into an inexpressive figure representing a single idea, a narrative pawn, like the mannequins that he ritualistically dresses and undresses throughout the film.
Manny Farber perceptively described Becker’s films on first release as “a freakish mixture of unpretentious naturalism and Hollywood’s slick glamorizing.” This certainly accounts for both the minor shortcomings as well as the dizzying emotional heights of his early films. But how then to account for the trajectory that led Becker to Le trou, his final film and the most atypical film of his career? About a group of prisoners and the daily toils and innovations that constitute their gradual escape, Le trou is something of a masterpiece in what, on first pass, appears to be a mold entirely antithetical to Becker’s general project. It is plain, Premingerian, almost chemically pure in the way it focuses just on the work of five men trapped in their cell. With only each other for company, the men creatively devise schemes to break out and taste the air of the outside world. As Serge Daney noted, Le trou transcends its lucid depiction of life between four walls and comes to be about “the very idea of freedom.” Notably, it may be the only prison movie ever that features no scenes in the yard.
Becker, largely suppressing his digressionary impulses, focuses his energies on individually depicting the multitude of physical acts that constitute the men’s escape. The obliteration, with a bedpost, of a small section of the cell floor: the men take turns stepping into and out of the tight shot of the ground, held for more than four minutes, hammering away at the cement. Tired by the grueling regimen of swinging arms, hunched backs, and clattering steel, the first man steps aside and hands over the bedpost. The second adjusts the grip, taking out a handkerchief to reduce the friction between the handle and the skin of his palm, and continues the relentless smashing of rock and cement. For the most part, Becker declines to build suspense through conventional forms. Whatever tension does appear arises in large part out of the material constituents of the scene, not least of which is the volume of the sounds produced in the actual act of the escape. Floors, walls smashed to pieces, metal posts filed noisily in the dark—has there been a louder prison film?
Though Le trou is remarkably more austere, it is still in the tradition of all of Becker’s previous movies, built as they are out of lost time. A constellation of glances, gestures, and acts of physical grace, the film is an unlikely blend of styles. If the overwhelming feeling is for the pleasure derived from the professional way Becker’s inmates treat their escape, there is also a flipside feeling of moments spent relaxing between key sequences. In one scene, Roland (Jean Keraudy, one of the real-life escapees playing a fictionalized version of himself) leads his comrades down into the sewers below their cell and explains the particulars of his set-up, including a handmade hourglass to tell time and a stack of boards used to prevent the blocking of the drainage system. As he leaves, explaining that he needs to grab a few hours sleep before the guards come for their morning inspection, one of the men remarks to the other, “He’s incredible.” And as in Becker’s other films, shots linger as characters occupy the space beyond the dramatic requirements of the given scene, freighting them with a life that seems to stretch beyond the confines of the frame. There’s the scene on the first night after the men break through to the complex of sewers and storage rooms under the prison, where a shot of Roland and Manu (Philippe Leroy) walking into the inscrutable blackness of a dark passageway seems to extend for almost a minute. Another sees the five men in their cell chowing down on a box of treats delivered from the outside. “Here we do nothing but eat,” one comments, as they absentmindedly share the space together for a few seconds.
Likewise, one of the most beautiful sequences of Becker’s proto-Rohmerian Édouard et Caroline takes place in the downtime between story beats: Caroline, distressed at her superintendent pestering her for favors and at the general recalcitrance of her husband to get ready for a reception, finds herself alone in her apartment. Without a beat missed, she flicks on the radio and dances across the room, her puffy dress floating through the air as she does. As she gets ready, she continues to sing along with the song, as if there were no audience or no world outside the movie at all. Similarly, Touchez pas au grisbi’s shot of Gabin and his partner sitting in their hideout eating pâté extends far past what any normal director would deem strictly necessary. About nothing more than their lifelong camaraderie, it’s still also plays a very real part in establishing Gabin’s later decision to abandon all rationality and rescue his kidnapped friend from the clutches of a rival faction. Becker has a way of integrating his gift for characterization with an invisible but nonetheless real story sense; Le trou is perhaps so successful, then, because of this peculiar interplay of registers.
The film ends a few minutes after the revelation that Claude (Marc Michel) has rat out his buddies after being told that his wife might drop the charges against him, thus giving the possibility he could be set free within a few days. Of course, this turns out to be nothing more than a ploy by the warden, and Becker strikes a philosophical tone as he depicts Claude, exiting the cell where we have spent the previous two hours observing these men in the utmost intimacy, being marched across the hallway to an identical cell opposite. Were it not for the nuance gleaned from Becker’s magnification of gesture and human expression throughout, the gulf between Claude and his companions would have been invisible. It is never a plot point for Becker, which is why unattentive viewers might see the last-minute reveal as unearned cynicism. The undoing of the group was, as for so many Becker protagonists, that they went against their instincts, that they failed to account for what they were feeling—nothing short of a crime in Becker, that most instinctual of filmmakers.