Judge Jim Thomas was amazed to learn Truffaut, a Monkees fan, wanted to title the film The Last Metro to Clarskville.
Our review of The Last Metro (Blu-Ray), published April 2nd, 2009, is also available.
A Story of Love and Conflict.
Francois Truffaut had a number of goals in making The Last Metro: He wanted to capture the ambiance of the Occupation; he wanted to capture the backstage ambiance of a theater, much in the way he had previously captured the chaos of filmmaking in 1973's Day for Night; and he wanted to give Catherine Deneuve the role of a responsible woman (as opposed to the bored housewife roles which had made her famous). In co-writing the screenplay, Truffaut drew heavily on his own memories of the Occupation, as well as memoirs of the stage actors of the period. In fact, many of the events in the movie, such as an actor threatening to beat up a critic, are based in fact. The result is a highly personal movie, one that captured the French imagination and won 10 César awards-the French equivalent of the Academy Award-including best picture, best director, best screenplay, actor, actress, and cinematography.
We're not assembled here to discuss where this film ranks in Truffaut's oeuvre, where it stands in relation to other French films about WWII, or even if the movie is truly representative of the French New Wave. The evidence will show that this movie, though far from perfect, is clearly the product of a director working at the top of his game.
Facts of the Case
In the midst of Nazi occupation, theaters still did a brisk business, partly because of the need for escapism, and partly because no one had any heat, but could stay warm in a crowded theater. So they flocked to the theaters, always careful to catch the last metro out of Paris so they could get home before curfew.
The Theatre Montmartre has fallen on hard times. Jewish owner and director Lucas Steiner (Heinz Bennent) has fled the country to avoid the concentration camps; in his absence, Steiner's wife Marion Steiner (Catherine Deneuve, Belle du Jour) struggles to keep the theater running. The theater's future hinges on their new play, Disappearances; as rehearsals progress, the cast deals with the occupation in their own way. Leading man Bernard Granger (Gerard Depardieu, Cyrano de Bergerac) is peripherally involved with the resistance, while supporting player Nadine rushes from theater work to film work to television work, anything to further her career. But Marion has a secret-Lucas is really hiding out in the theater cellar. From there he listens to rehearsals, passing directorial notes through his wife. As the occupation continues, Marion must overcome obstacle after obstacle, from an influential anti-Semitic theater critic who suspects that Lucas is still in France, her husband's growing sense of isolation, and, most unexpectedly, her growing attraction to her leading man.
In German-occupied France, the last metro represents the last chance to return home before the midnight curfew, the last chance to reach sanctuary, if only for an evening. But symbols are funny things; a symbol for safety must carry with it the related danger. That duality is reflected throughout the movie, in a variety of ways. There's even a duality in the notion of collaboration-within the theater, collaboration is at the heart of the dramatic art, but outside, collaboration means something far more sinister. Even the characters change within and without the theater walls. Marion perhaps is pulled in more directions than anyone else. As the acting owner of the theater, she must turn away a Jewish actor, even though she's married to one. She's torn between the world above and the world below (in the cellar). And of course, she's torn between two men. Everyone associated with the theater has a secret life of some sort. That underlying duality, that instability, informs all that transpires. Who can draw order out of such chaos? Why, the director, of course. Just as Lucas works (almost literally) behind the scenes to refine the actors' performances and draw forth a singular vision, so does Truffaut work from behind the camera.
With all of the backstage and wartime intrigue, it would be very easy for this story to become trite and clichéd; fortunately, Truffaut's control over the narrative never lets us get too complacent. From the opening montage that slowly drifts from fact to fiction, from the long tracking shot that opens the movie proper, to the hallway shots in which other actors busily orbit the actors at the heart of the action, the composition of each scene is such that the images help move the plot forward, and keep us slightly off balance. As Bernard waits to see Marion and sign his contract, he looks at a picture of the theater hanging on the wall, looking from the stage out into the audience. Squinting, he reaches out, only to discover that the picture is a 3-D picture box, with several rows of miniature seats mounted in front of a photo of the theater.
Little things like the photo add a slight playfulness to the proceedings, a playfulness that belies the grimmer world conflict. The film's trappings, particularly with the love triangle, are the stuff of melodrama, tragedy, and heartbreak, but Truffaut simply refuses to go there. His interests lie with the drama of the theater, the way it changes people, the way it can change our perception of the world. That sense simmers beneath the surface for much of the film, bursting forth in the film's conclusion-perhaps the only part of the film that is overtly New Wave. Just as the film begins with a montage that gently slips from our reality into the film's reality, the movie ends with a montage that moves in the opposite direction-then tweaks our nose at the last moment.
This is a heavily nostalgic film; an early scene in which a mother insists on washing her son's hair simply because a German soldier patted him on the head happened to Truffaut himself. An important function of that nostalgia is that the film really doesn't judge. When Nadine arrives late because of her other jobs, the other theater members protest, but once she explains that she is doing what she has to do to become a success, the matter is dropped; at the end of the movie she achieves some measure of success. The only person who we are asked to judge is Daxiat (Jean-Louis Richard), a theater critic (based on a real person) who uses his publication to preach anti-Semitism poorly disguised as criticism. There's a sense that Truffaut-who was a major film critic before stepping behind the camera-objects to Daxiat not because of his ties to the Germans, but because he bastardizes criticism to achieve a political end, something that Truffaut would naturally find abhorrent.
The acting is solid all around. Depardieu's rough, boisterous energy stands in sharp contrast to Deneuve's controlled exterior. It takes a while to warm up Marion, in fact, because she is so tightly wound. The key to the performance is Deneuve's eyes-that's where she does all the thespic heavy lifting. The casting of Heinz Bennent as Lucas Steiner initially raised some Gallic eyebrows, because Bennent's reputation to that point had been based largely on his portrayal of German soldiers, but he turns in a carefully layered performance in a pivotal role. Andréa Ferréol gives Arlette, the theater's production designer, a wry, cynical edge-which comes in handy as she holds off Bernard's repeated advances.
Criterion has done a phenomenal job with their restoration. The video is particularly impressive. While grain remains, the richness of the colors amazes. Out in the streets, the gray palette reflects the uncertainty of the occupation; within the theater, however, everything is imbued with a gentle, warm glow reflecting the nurturing safety it provides. The restored mono track enhances Georges Delarue's score, which is sporadic but effective. The subtitles have been newly translated for this release, and have the feel of actual dialogue. The subtitle text itself could be improved-curves and diagonals are very jagged; next time, check the anti-aliasing box, OK?.
As expected, Criterion serves up an impressive set of extras. A commentary track with Depardieu and historian Jean-Pierre Azéma, moderated by Truffaut biographer Serge Toubiana, is retained from Criterion's 2002 Region 2 release. On the plus side, you get three distinctly different perspectives on the movie; on the downside (maybe), the commentary is in French (w/ English subtitles). This commentary requires a bit more attention, obviously, but it's still worthwhile, in particular for the historical details that Azéma brings to the table. New to this release is the commentary by Truffaut expert Annette Insdorf. It's a solo commentary, but Insdorf has a very conversational delivery, and speaks in English, which is a bonus. One deleted scene is included; it is given a brief text introduction, explaining that Truffaut removed it at the last minute to keep the running time down. However, subtitles are not provided, so the court cannot accurately assess the evidence. A series of television interviews with Truffaut, Deneuve, Depardieu, and others provide a greater sense of context for the movie, and just how personal a movie it is for Truffaut. Une histoire d'eau, Truffaut's 1958 short film co-directed with Jean-Luc Godard, is an early illustration of Truffaut's fascination with the way in which film could create its own reality. (The film's title is a pun on Histoire d'O, an erotic bondage novel published in 1954.)
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Earlier, the court praised Truffaut's direction, noting that image compositions and camera angles play a major role in moving the story forward. At times, though, Truffaut gets too clever for his own good, such as with the development of the growing attraction between Marion and Bernard. The two have relatively little interaction in the movie's first 90 minutes, yet it is somehow readily apparent to Steiner that Bernard is in love with Marion. It's almost as though Truffaut is attempting to establish that attraction with every tool at his disposal except for direct interaction between the two characters. In fact, the first person to acknowledge the attraction to both Bernard and Marion is Steiner himself-the director. It's an interesting conceit, but if one doesn't buy into it, the movie's conclusion, which can be seen as the ultimate expression of Truffaut's auteur theory, will leave viewers scratching their heads.
One problem is that you never quite get a sense of time passing. In one scene, Steiner is fine down in the cellar, but the next time we see him, he's overcome with cabin fever. At the end of the film we're told that he spent 813 days in the cellar, but we never know how many of those days were depicted in the movie. That's, at best, a minor nit.
The Last Metro is a kindred spirit of Ernst Lubitsch's 1942 comedy, To Be or Not To Be, particularly with regard to the glimpse of theater life played out in the shadow of World War II. The metro itself is mentioned but once or twice, but it remains a constant in everyone's lives, a reminder that no place is truly safe, and that you always need to have an escape route. As noted earlier, the court lacks the experience to judge this movie as part of his entire body of work, but only on its own merits.
Those merits place it very high indeed.
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