Judge Daniel MacDonald missed the last metro. Stupid trains never run on time.
Our review of The Last Metro: Criterion Collection, published March 24th, 2009, is also available.
A Story of Love and Conflict.
The show must go on. In The Last Metro, a lovely little gem of a film from French New Wave auteur Francois Truffaut (The 400 Blows), this trite phrase takes on a multitude of meanings as a small theater troupe in German-occupied Paris stages a play, looking to bring much-needed entertainment to the people. The behind-the-scenes hustle and bustle is effectively rendered with energy and life, as we watch actors learn their lines and make passes at each other; the offstage drama is heavy indeed. We're introduced to this world, both figuratively and literally, by following promising actor (and secret Resistance member) Bernard Granger (Gerard Depardieu, Hamlet) as he is interviewed for a role. Granger is initially upset by overhearing the company's stated policy of refusing work to Jews and nearly storms off, but he is convinced to stay and learns that more is going on in this little playhouse than meets the eye.
While the drama is ostensibly being guided by Jean-Loup (Jean Poiret, Rumeurs), lead actress Marion Steiner (Catherine Deneuve, Dancer in the Dark) is actually consulting with her Jewish husband (and the theater's former director) Lucas, who everyone else believes has fled the country. Listening to the rehearsals through a vent and making copious notes in his cellar hideaway, Lucas guides the company on the sly, and offers his own small form of resistance to the Nazi oppression.
The Last Metro uses the occupation to examine the resiliency of the human spirit, and offers a unique form of commentary on the oppression of French Jews during that time, yet manages to do so without resorting to melodrama or audience manipulation. Nearly the entire picture takes place inside the theater, and much of the action happens off screen—efficient lines of dialogue and other small clues tell us what's gone on since the last scene, cluing us into what ends up being a substantial passage of time. The tone of the piece is surprisingly airy, despite the oppressive subject matter. While radio broadcasts and officers in uniform continuously remind us of what's going on beyond the walls of the theater, this is not a film about people being dragged off to concentration camps. Instead, it's a meditation on theater life, as Truffaut's Day for Night was an examination of filmmaking. Camera angles, lighting, and delivery are all somewhat stagy rather than striving for pure realism, which is part of what makes The Last Metro so enjoyable to watch.
What also makes it enjoyable to watch is the stellar video transfer on Criterion's Blu-ray edition. While the opening and closing titles appear over a vibrant swatch of red, much of the film's color palette is subdued, yet the sense of depth exhibited by the best in high definition is consistently present, with only the rare scratch marring the frame. Grain is nearly always visible, ranging from very fine in brightly lit scenes to quite apparent in dim light, which adds greatly to the feel of the film and ensures no fine detail is lost. The bit rate is consistently high, therefore no compression artifacts or mosquito noise are present. I found no edge enhancement to speak of. Shadow detail is often impressive, although there are times when the black areas of the screen are completely impenetrable—this may be black crush, but I suspect it was more likely intentional during filming. Audio comes in a rare uncompressed PCM mono track, at a bit rate of 1.5Mbps: this may seem like overkill, but the soundtrack has a natural, full tenor with no analog hiss or tearing. Clearly, a lot of love went into the technical presentation.
The supplemental features not only live up to Criterion's high standards of quality, but are also impressive in their quantity. Two feature-length commentaries are available, one by film scholar Annette Insdorf, and another in French by Depardieu, a film historian, and a Truffaut biographer (subtitled in English). Both offer copious, well-organized information on the film and its meaning, and should satisfy Truffaut fans. Also present are a deleted scene, excerpts from French television, new interviews with cast and crew members, a short film by Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, and the theatrical trailer. Rounding out the package is an insert featuring an excellent essay by New York critic Armond White: one may want to read his essay before watching the movie to fully appreciate The Last Metro.
While not as well known as some of Truffaut's other works, The Last Metro deserves a place in the collection of anyone interested in world cinema, and this Blu-ray edition is unquestionably the best way to see it.
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