Sunday 15 November 2009

The Last Metro (1980)

Director: François Truffaut
Stars: Catherine Deneuve, Gérard Depardieu and Jean Poiret
Paris in 1942 wasn't a particularly safe place to be, especially if you're a prominent German Jew like Lucas Steiner, who runs the Theatre Montmartre. The north of France was under Nazi occupation had been for a couple of years, but fortunately the day the authorities came for him he had already escaped to the free zone, the Vichy run south. Now the theatre is managed by his wife, Marion, who seems to be doing an able job even accounting for the problems inherent in the time: the Nazis censor all material shown on the stage and periodically purge Jews from theatres whatever jobs they're doing. She also has another, more secret problem: she's the only one who knows that her husband couldn't get out in time so is secluded down in the cellar until he can be spirited away.

Just as Marion is more than capable of running the show, Catherine Deneuve who plays her is more than capable of carrying our film, but she's not the only name here. As we wait for Marion to surreptitiously organise his escape, we watch the day to day operations of the theatre under such awkward circumstances. They're putting on a new play, ironically called Disappearance, and they've even brought in a new leading man, Bernard Granger from the Grand Guignol, who's played by Gérard Depardieu. Marion compares him to Jean Gabin in La bête humaine, very physical and yet quite gentle. That physicality is obvious from moment one, as Depardieu is hardly a stick figure and we first meet him trying to chat up a woman in the street who turns out to be the costume designer of the theatre he's about to work for.

What Marion doesn't know is that he's yet another danger to her husband, as he's not just the womaniser that he appears to be, he's also a resistance fighter prone to do things like try to blow up Admiral Froelich with a exploding record player he took from the theatre. There are many dangers, of course, not least a theft that takes place in the theatre while they plan the seating, so much of which has to be reserved for the Nazis. Obviously the last thing she needs is to have the police searching the theatre, even though Lucas has rigged up a heating vent to enable him to hear the rehearsals and the play from his hiding place.

There's also a character called Daxiat who is a looming presence of menace throughout. He's the drama critic for Je suis partout and he's widely respected even though he's more than just in with the Nazis. He's utterly unpredictable and could turn on a dime. One minute he's telling Marion that her husband's talent is above any question about race, the next he's calling virulently for Jewish purges from the theatre. One minute he's the first to stand to applaud the opening night's performance of Disappearance, the next he's ripping it to shreds in his column. As the play's director Jean-Loup Cottins tells him at one point, he was reluctant to visit him because 'with someone like you it's hard to tell if it's an appointment or an arrest.' He even tries to weasel his way into co-ownership of the theatre with Cottins, but we're not quite sure how much of that aim is arrogant power and how much is a serious love for the theatre and a desire to see it continue.

Much of the success of this film is in how well it builds through characterisation and clever set pieces a tableau of life in Paris during the Nazi occupation. The presence of the Germans pervades throughout, even down to little touches like set manager Raymond Boursier teaching the son of the concierge all the bad words he can think of to desribe them. Yet they're rarely seen, highlighting just how much the occupation force was a minority ruling out of fear. People like Bernard Granger are able to live and work under their thumb while remaining able to avoid them most of the time. At one point the troupe visits a nightclub and Granger turns up late, only to promptly leave again when he checks his hat and realises from the stack of military caps just how many Nazis are there.

There's depth to each of the characters. Just as Marion has her secret and Bernard his, they're far from the only ones. Jean-Loup Cottins has his connections and makes things happen though we have to ask just what that means. Bernard doesn't get anywhere with the voluptuous Arlette because she has a secret of her own that gets discovered one night through a carelessly unlocked door. Young actress Nadine Marsac, eager to be a star, takes every job she possibly can, meaning that she flits from the radio in the morning to dubbing in the afternoon and on to the stage in the evening. Such dedication is admirable, except that she admits that she'd even have taken a role in Jud Süß if they had a part for a young French girl.

There are little touches everywhere to help build these characters and provide flavour and colour to the story, from benign ones like the German soldier painting in the streets or Germaine Fabre knitting backstage to more dubious ones like little Jacquot's subversive garden to the fact that all the actors sign contractors stating that they and their ancestors were not Jewish. Some of them are obvious, like the ever inventive Raymond Boursier finding a way to keep the theatre open when others close for lack of electricity by rigging up bicycle powered lamps to be the footlights. Some are more obscure, such as the title which is a clever little touch: Paris had a curfew of 11.00pm, meaning that it was massively important that whatever you were doing you didn't miss the last métro.

It would be so cheap for me to follow that by saying that whatever you're doing you shouldn't miss The Last Metro either, but it's appropriate. It isn't Truffaut's best but it's up there with something even more lauded like The 400 Blows to me, at least based on a single viewing of each. Somehow it manages to be both lush and claustrophobic: the set design and the choices of colour flesh out the theatre wonderfully, just as when Bernard attempts to chat up Arlette in the street I couldn't stop looking at the posters around them, but the looming menace of the occupying forces hems in the viewers just as it confined Lucas Steiner to the cellar of his own theatre. I'm slacking on Truffaut it seems, catching up some of his fellow French directors far easier, but like each of the preceding four of his films I've seen, it has a voice of its own and it makes me look forward to the next one.

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