Beyond the Visible: Realism in the Films of Jacques Becker (Preview)
by Darragh O’Donoghue
It seems that each generation of Anglophone critics tries—and fails—to raise Jacques Becker to the pantheon of “great filmmakers.” The apologias follow a similar sequence. Becker is rated as a realist and/or materialist and/or sensualist more interested in character and gesture, environment and atmosphere, objects and time, musicality and costume, than narrative fireworks and blunt meanings. Becker’s style was too self-effacing and subtle for its own good. Becker worked in too many genres to be usefully pigeonholed. Becker’s situation of his characters in detailed and determining environments reflects his lifelong socialist beliefs. Becker is the crucial link between the two golden ages of French cinema—the 1930s experiments in realism of Jean Renoir, with whom he worked as assistant and creative collaborator for six years during the period he created most of his recognized masterpieces, and the New Wave directors who, as critics, interviewed Becker and celebrated him as one of the few French filmmakers of his era to eke out a distinctive personal style, and whose work they regularly cited and engaged with in their own as crucial intertexts.
Although there is a genuine, heartfelt desire to give Becker his due in such pieces, one has the sneaking suspicion of connoisseurship in the special pleading, as if, like a fine wine, Becker is a taste so rarefied only the most sophisticated sensibilities can acquire it. Certainly, the language employed is often rapturous, the claims made hyperbolic. Gilberto Perez¹ placed Becker with Vigo, Renoir, and Truffaut among the “Great Tradition” of poetry in French cinema, above the “tradition of style and formal polish” represented by Clair, Bresson, and Resnais. Philip Kemp in his January–February 1999 Film Comment survey—still the finest overview of Becker’s work in English—cites Mozart, Chekhov, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Guy de Maupassant, and even makes the “sacrilegious” claim that Jean Renoir’s work lost its “cogency and acuity of attack” after Becker left him, and that “Renoir may have needed Becker more than Becker needed Renoir.”
In many ways, Becker is the ultimate director’s director. Among his early and most fervent admirers were future directors Lindsay Anderson, François Truffaut, Jacques Rivette, and Jean-Luc Godard; Godard’s obituary of Becker comprises citations of Becker’s work and concludes defiantly that “poets only pretend to die.”² Renoir’s French Cancan (1955) pays multiple homages to his disciple’s best-loved film, Casque d’Or (1952). Becker’s influence has been acknowledged by or traced in some of the major French directors working after his death, including Alain Resnais, Jacques Demy, Éric Rohmer, and Maurice Pialat. Bertrand Tavernier’s 2017 documentary, My Journey through French Cinema, constituted a significant homage to Becker. More surprisingly, he was also admired by experimental filmmakers and theorists, including the U.S. expatriates Stephen Dwoskin and Noël Burch.
Another feature shared by the proselytizers is their focus on a small number of films to make their claims; Pérez freely admits that his evaluation is based on having seen only two. Due to the illness that led to his early death in 1960 at the age of fifty-three, and also to a perfectionism that resulted in films going over-schedule and over-budget, to the chagrin of producers, Becker completed only thirteen features as a director in two decades. Even this baker’s dozen is abbreviated in accounts of his work. Becker’s masterpieces are generally asserted to be Casque d’Or, Touchez Pas au Grisbi, and Le Trou (for instance, these are the Becker films released in the Criterion Collection). These are the films that continue to generate the most critical writing.
These are astonishing works, but such a myopic focus has resulted in a very distorted general account of Becker’s oeuvre. Critics and posterity tend to pigeonhole, and Becker’s temperamental refusal to be pigeonholed has had a debilitating effect on his reputation. Casque d’Or, Grisbi, and Le Trou on their own leave the impression that Becker, like his friend, admirer, and fellow resistant Jean-Pierre Melville, was primarily a maker of male-centered crime films. This account leaves out the variety of genres (spy thriller, rural melodrama, social and domestic comedy, fantasy, literary adaptation), milieux (under-, lower-, and upper-class; criminal, laboring, artistic, academic), age groups (prototeenagers to senile misers), historical periods (medieval Arabia, Belle Époque Paris, and contemporary France), settings (interior and exterior; cramped apartments and jails; haute-bourgeois showrooms and castles; workspaces, from printworks and carpenter’s ateliers to fashion houses and embassies; the (sub)urban detritus of scrapyards and wastelands; the liminal spaces of transport and leisure) and characters (male and female; abject genius and heroic ex-con). Worse, Becker loved to collapse such binary oppositions—Casque d’Or, for example, is a female-centered crime film in period costume. Art-house audiences like to look down on viewers of generic blockbusters, but can be just as conventional in their expectations. They like to know what they are getting when they see a Bergman, an Antonioni, a Rohmer, a Hou, a Tsai, or a Kiarostami—as any of these filmmakers discovered to their cost whenever they tried to stray from their “brand.” What was Becker’s “brand”? What is “a Becker”?
By 1959, Jacques Becker seemed to have lost his way; to be creatively as well as physically clapped out. Within a year he would be dead. In 1954 he had reached his critical and commercial peak, when Touchez Pas au Grisbi, a celebrated revision of the gangster genre, was seen by nearly five million French viewers. His earlier films made during and soon after the Occupation saw Becker acclaimed, somewhat improbably, as the French incarnation of neorealism, while his portraits of friendship and romantic relationships in contemporary Paris—such as the Palme d’Or–winning Antoine and Antoinette (1947) and the Prix Louis Delluc-winning Rendezvous in July (1949)—were prized by younger audiences and critics disheartened by the stodgy literary adaptations that dominated French cinema. Becker’s own formally and politically radical Casque d’Or (1952) received a comparatively cool reception (routinely described as a flop, it was actually seen by 1.9 million), but after acclaim abroad, it was re-evaluated as a masterpiece by dissenters such as France’s most influential critic, André Bazin.
After the sensation of Grisbi, however, it all seemed to go badly wrong. Popular success led to bigger budgets and international co-productions, with their attendant compromises and frustrations. Becker made two films in color, a process to which he was considered unsuited. Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (1954) was an Orientalist fantasy starring the popularly revered but critically despised comedian Fernandel (imagine Paul Thomas Anderson had followed Magnolia with the Adam Sandler vehicle Little Nicky instead of Punch-Drunk Love). It is generally considered Becker’s worst film (though Truffaut thought it remarkable and used the phrase “politique des auteurs” for the first time in his review). The period crime caper The Adventures of Arsène Lupin (1957) has been dismissed as an anonymous, made-to-order spectacle (though Bazin saw it as a thoughtful remake of Casque d’Or). Montparnasse 19 (1958), a biopic of the émigré artist Modigliani, was a troubled production, with Becker taking over the project on the death of its instigator, Max Ophüls (to whom the film was dedicated). Becker fell out with its screenwriter, and is generally considered to have produced what Tom Milne³ called something “disastrously close to the conventional Hollywood tale of the misunderstood genius” (though Godard⁴ cherished its clumsiness for asking the fundamental questions about cinema. After a series of artistic disasters, it seemed as if Becker had squandered his great promise.
Then came what Tom Milne has called the “apotheosis” of Le Trou (1960). Like many artists depleted by the exigencies of big-budget production, Becker returned to filmmaking degree-zero. The black-and-white film is set entirely within a prison. It is based on the “true story” of a failed jailbreak, and includes among its nonprofessional cast one of the original convicts, with two others acting as consultants. Much of the film was shot in Paris’s La Santé prison, where the original events took place. Becker drew on his own experience as a German prisoner of war during the Occupation, and co-wrote the screenplay with the author of a novel about the escape attempt, the fascist José Giovanni, himself a long-term prison inmate. Instead of the rapid editing and calligraphic camerawork for which he was prized (and just as often patronized), Becker executed long takes of unglamorous characters doing work—knocking holes through cement floors and walls, filing an iron bar, exploring tunnels and sewers—as if to confirm the “authenticity” of and lack of technical trickery involved in what audiences saw.
The use of the word “apotheosis” is revealing. It is tinged with a religiose interpretation of the biographical facts—Becker was dying when the film was shot, died (according to Godard’s elegiac and mythopoeic account, “Frère Jacques”) the moment he learned that postproduction was complete, and before the film was released, and so was never able learn whether Le Trou had revived and secured his reputation. But “apotheosis” implies a prior fall. Becker—it would seem—had ethically and aesthetically sunk by straying from the realism that was perceived to be his metier. His reputation rose again with his return to apparent naturalism in Le Trou…
¹ Gilbert Pérez Guillermo, “Jacques Becker: Two Films” (Sight & Sound, Vol. 38, No. 3, Summer 1969), pp. 142–147.
² Jean-Luc Godard, “Frère Jacques” (in Jean Narboni and Tom Milne, eds., Godard on Godard, New York: The Viking Press, 1972), pp. 163–164. First published in Cahiers du cinéma, No. 106, April 1960.
³ Jean Narboni and Tom Milne, op. cit. p. 256.
⁴ Jean Narboni and Tom Milne, loc. cit., pp. 74–75. First published in Cahiers du cinéma, No. 83, May 1958.
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Cineaste, Vol. XLIV, No. 1