Back when I reviewed A Man Escaped – a French prison escape film, much like Le Trou – I speculated that I might have enjoyed it more if the script had given me even just a tiny bit more character development alongside the lengthy MaGuyver-esque sequences showing what our hero was doing. Le Trou still has the nuts-and-bolts “how they do it” sequences – but it does give me the character development I was missing, and I’m pleased to report that yes, I did like it better.
The film is based on a real attempted escape from France’s La Santé prison, and even casts one of the original inmates involved – Jean Keraudy, who effectively plays himself (almost literally – “Jean Keraudy” is a stage name, and Keraudy’s character’s name of “Roland Darbant” is very similar to Keraudy’s real name of “Roland Barbat”). The film even opens with Keraudy giving a direct address to the camera, stating that “my friend Jacques Becker” has made this film based on his and his fellow inmates’ own story.
After that, Darbant/Keraudy/whoever takes a step back as the story follows another inmate, Claude Gaspard (Marc Michel). Gaspard has been in La Santé awaiting trial, and thus far his stint has been pretty uneventful – he’s polite to the guards and wardens, he gets regular care packages from a girlfriend, everything seems to be okay. He’s even apologizing to the warden when we first see him – the warden has caught him with a forbidden lighter, and he apologizes, stating that it’s not even working and he only had it for sentimental reasons. But he still surrenders it to the warden all the same. So when Gaspard’s cell needs repair work, the warden transfers him to another cell for his own comfort instead of forcing him to suffer through it.
Gaspard’s new roommates are a little miffed when he first shows up, but Gaspard’s a decent enough guy who tries to make nice. In addition to the quiet “Roland Darbant”, there is the jovial Vossellin (Raymond Meunier), the wisecracking Geo (Michel Constantin), and brooding Manu (Phillippe Leroy). All hold Gaspard at arms’ length at first, but Gaspard breaks the ice by sharing the contents of a food parcel recently sent him by a girlfriend on the outside. After treating themselves to Gaspard’s foie gras, and learning he’s been charged with attempted murder, the others decide to trust him – and tell him that he’s caught them in the midst of planning a prison break, and since he’s facing a tough sentence, they’ll bring him in if he wants in.
Much of the ensuing film shows their progress – Darbant hacking together various tools out of bed parts, Vossellin playing sick to steal some doo-dads to make an hourglass, Manu mapping out their path to the sewer system and thence to the outside world. And that kind of how-they-did-it stuff is indeed clever (I still want to try making the “periscope” Darbant fashions out of a shard of mirror and a toothbrush), but the real drama comes from the interpersonal stuff – Geo’s weird obsession with asking Gaspard about his sex life, Vossellin’s comic-relief instincts diffusing any tension in the ranks, and Gaspard’s growing hero-worship of Manu, cemented when the pair together discover the sewer tunnel that is guaranteed to bring the group to freedom. However, just as they’re about to make their escape, Gaspard learns that his charges have been dropped. So he no longer has anything to gain by escaping – but he could gain something by betraying his new chums…
Le Trou depicts the exact logistics of the escape plan in very thorough detail, and that still occasionally felt a bit tedious; when the inmates move aside some floorboards to uncover the hole they’re digging out of their cell, I don’t need to see each and every board they move aside, much less seeing that each and every time. But at least here the floorboard-shuffle was occasionally offset by Vossellin making a Dad Joke before shimmying down into the hole, or the digging sequences were offset by Geo taking a break from the digging to confess that he was having second thoughts about joining the others on the outside. In short, we learn more about who these people are – and so in the final sequence, when we see the nasty surprise Darbant sees in his periscope, we’re not only viscerally surprised – we also know the subtext for it, and it’s got more of an impact.