Jacques Becker, currently the subject of a full retrospective at Film Forum, was once one of the most undervalued of French filmmakers, seen by many as a lesser moon of the planet Jean Renoir (who was his friend, roommate, and frequent collaborator). It certainly didn’t help that Becker’s life and career were cut short in 1960, at the age of 53 — soon after completing his greatest triumph, the riveting prison-escape drama Le Trou. Thus were we deprived of what this director might have given us during the Sixties, a time when the excitement around the Nouvelle Vague inspired even established masters like Jean-Pierre Melville (another cinematic high-pressure zone to whom Becker was sometimes compared) to new heights.
But perhaps the biggest reason Becker was so regularly overlooked — even with such acknowledged classics like Le Trou, Touchez Pas au Grisbi, and Casque d’Or on his relatively slender résumé — was because he was so hard to pin down tonally or narratively. He made period pieces, romantic dramas, comedies, gangster flicks. His work displayed a certain patience toward his material and a generosity towards his characters, but often to varied ends; there’s no overt, consistent Jacques Becker “feeling” or “sensibility.” At least, not in the traditional sense. What you walk away with from his pictures isn’t so much a particular emotion as it is a heightened sense of awareness. Becker saw like no other filmmaker. He created entire worlds from the smallest details.
Often fixated on process, Becker could turn the most mundane, unremarkable bits of work into hypnotic cinema. His fanciful crime drama Dernier atout (1942), following two ambitious police cadets in an unnamed Latin American country as they attempt to solve the murder of a notorious American gangster and untangle a crime ring, is filled with the minutiae of police work, as well as little gestural details that gradually take on huge importance. An object casually moved on a table. A phone left off the hook. A glance held too long. Becker knows how to direct our attention. These small particulars both pull us in further and lead us to a greater understanding of the story and characters.
Process is at the heart of his fashion-industry melodrama Falbalas (1945), which tracks acclaimed designer and noted womanizer Philippe Clarence (Raymond Rouleau) as he falls for the woman whose wedding dress he’s designing. That’s the basic story outline, but what the film really winds up being about is the way Clarence’s obsession feeds on and clashes with the busy hubbub of his fashion house. He treats like dirt the women who work round-the-clock to make his creations real, and he seems incapable of seeing people as people. “The soul of a dress is the body of a woman,” he likes to say, but we may wonder if he can even conceive of a woman with a soul; they’re just vessels for his designs. In his study stands a remarkably lifelike mannequin that he sometimes likes to adorn with his dresses. To him, the mannequin seems a kind of romantic ideal — the woman he’s fallen for looks remarkably like it — and we keep waiting for it to come to life. Surprise: It does, right at the end, prompting him in his madness to jump out a window. Observing his corpse, a woman concludes, “He didn’t even break.” Who’s the inanimate object now?
In the playful and tender working-class romance Antoine and Antoinette (1947), Becker uses this obsession with process and routine to create a greater sense of urgency for his characters. Antoine (Roger Pigaut) labors at a printing press, handling huge machines that cut paper and look at any given moment like they could casually slice his hands to bits; the director makes sure to linger on the machinery and Antonie’s actions just long enough to make sure we understand this. Meanwhile, Antoine’s wife, Antoinette (Claire Mafféi), works at a local department store, where she likes to lend out the rejected and slightly defective books she gets from Antoine to her co-workers. At the office, she resists the admonitions of her boss; shopping at the store, she resists the advances of her grocer. Becker establishes these frustrating and dehumanizing exchanges as part of the everyday texture of existence for this modest couple, and for much of the film, we could be forgiven for thinking the movie will merely be a directionless slice of life. Only toward the end do all these elements suddenly snap into sharper focus, when our lovers discover that they’ve got a winning lottery ticket — which Antoine promptly loses. Suddenly, the humdrum details Becker has been presenting to us — from the discarded books to the lecherous storekeepers to the busybody neighbors to all the other basics of how our heroes navigate this bustling, working-class milieu — gain profound, interlocked significance.
Becker has become better appreciated over the past couple of decades, with several retrospectives and restorations. His beautiful later crime dramas — the doomed period romance Casque d’Or (1952), the elegiac heist picture Touchez Pas au Grisbi (1954), and the prison-break thriller Le Trou — are the efforts on which much of his reputation now rests. Again, all three films demonstrate a profound degree of attention to tiny moments, but in each case, the mood created is quite different. In Casque, Becker seems as interested in how a gangster might admire and brush his jacket as he is in the life-or-death stakes of the story. Emotions are strangely subdued, and seismic events — including the male lead’s execution by guillotine — happen casually, quietly, with very little fuss or fanfare. Rather, the gestures and the glances tell the story: The most dramatic early exchange between the film’s two lovers — free-spirited moll Simone Signoret and humble carpenter Serge Reggiani — involves her taking an extended, gentle look at him as she walks away with her then-boyfriend. Becker doesn’t dwell on the gaze, nor does he close in on it. Rather, he places Signoret in the center of the frame, at some distance to the camera. The effect is to heighten the sense that she’s stealing a forbidden glance at the man she’d rather be with.
Though tonally and narratively nothing like one another, Grisbi and Le Trou share some telling similarities. The former involves an aging thief (played by that most iconic of movie thieves, Jean Gabin) trying to set his affairs in order in the wake of a major heist, while taking care not to touch the substantial amount of gold he’s just stolen. (The film’s title is sometimes translated as Don’t Touch the Loot.) The story thus becomes about the value of maintaining appearances, on routine and the ordinary — on keeping any and all drama at bay. Le Trou, meanwhile, follows a group of men in a Paris prison slowly, methodically carving a hole in the floor in order to tunnel their way out. Once again, process gains monumental significance. They create tools out of the metal frame of a folding bed. They take a shard of broken mirror and a toothbrush to fashion a tiny periscope-like spyglass. They rig cardboard and twine to create an elaborate contraption that will move their blankets as if someone were beneath them, allowing them to work through the guards’ nightly check-ins. Both films turn on the importance of not being noticed — on keeping your head down and making sure nothing is out of place.
This kind of studied minimalism — a care for the in-between moments; the particulars that shape the everyday; the details that make our worlds knowable, and relatable — would gain greater importance in cinema in later years, with the transformative work of Francis Truffaut, Michelangelo Antonioni, Chantal Akerman, Ermanno Olmi, and many others. Seen in that context, Jacques Becker stands as an old-wave craftsman with a new-wave spirit. His early death deprived us of a cinema that was sure to continue developing and expanding, but we should be grateful for what we have. His status as a master is secure.
Through August 16