Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Director Spotlight #10.18: Francois Truffaut's The Last Metro

Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. September’s director is consummate cinephile Francois Truffaut.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the movie in question.

Grade: 93 (A)

Francois Truffaut’s romanticism and deeply personal filmmaking may be invigorating to many, but to some of his contemporaries it showed a man unwilling to look past his own experiences and make something “for the people”. To say that this is reductive bullshit is an understatement, especially considering that Truffaut’s biggest critic in the “you need to make political films now” field is Jean-Luc Godard, whose increasing disinterest in anything other than didactic politics, snide reductions of others’ work, and assaults on the way people watch movies have put him among the most insufferable of great (or once-great) directors (see also: Peter Greenaway). Truffaut responded, in part, to his critics with 1980’s The Last Metro, his most politically charged film, winner of ten Cesar Awards (the French equivalent to the Oscars), and one of the finest films he ever made.

Marion Steiner (Catharine Deneuve) is an actress and wife of Jewish theatre director Lucas Steiner (Heinz Bennent). When the Nazis occupy France, Marion hides Lucas in the theatre’s cellar while preparing to put on a show directed from Lucas’ notes. Marion deals with pro-fascist theatre critic Daxiat (Jean-Louis Richard), who doesn’t buy Marion’s claim that Lucas has fled the country for South America. Complicating matters is a blossoming romance between Marion and new leading man Bernard (Gerard Depardieu).

The Last Metro is the second in Truffaut’s planned trilogy about the entertainment world following Day for Night (the third, L’Agence Magique, was never completed due to Truffaut’s death). It’s no coincidence that it’s Truffaut’s best since its predecessor. Truffaut was most energized in his later years when dealing with art, and The Last Metro gives the director another chance to craft a world filled with complicated, likable characters, from closeted makeup designer Arnette (Andrea Ferreol) to her lover Nadine (Sabine Haudepin), an aspiring actress willing to work with the Germans for the sake of her career. Truffaut brings his natural warmth and affection to the proceedings- the only true villain is Daxiat, whose vile Anti-Semitic screeds poison the airwaves and further resolve the theatre troupe. Truffaut largely tips his hat to fellow antiwar humanist Francois Truffaut and classic Hollywood melodramas like Casablanca (complete with some intentional staginess), but he’s also a Hitchcock fanatic, and the best material deals with tense situations where characters evade capture or deal face-to-face with monsters.
The Last Metro’s return to tumultuous love triangle material helps make it some of Truffaut’s most potent drama since Jules and Jim. Deneuve gives one of her very best performances as a woman who has put up a cold front to most of the rest of the world in order to protect her husband. When she and Bennent (nearly as good) make love, it’s under the tensest and most constrained circumstances, but it only amplifies their affection for each other. Contrast this with womanizing charmer Bertrand (Depardieu at his most disarming), who’s too attracted to Arlette to realize that men aren’t exactly her cup of tea. His romance with Marion is similar to that of Jim and Catharine in Jules and Jim, but here the tension comes not from instability but from how devastating it could potentially be for Lucas.

Truffaut recreates a world of overwhelming oppression and hatred, where everyone in the theatre fears and loathes the Nazis. It’s difficult to know who to trust, and they must placate a fascist critic in order to even put their show on. Many of the best scenes deal with Bertrand’s secret meetings with a colleague behind the scenes- it turns out that he’s helping the French resistance. Bernard is one of the most noble characters in Truffaut’s filmography- a Gentile who nearly leaves the theatre when he feels Anti-Semitic policies have been put in place (it’s not their fault), a man who leaves a restaurant when he realizes he’d have to check his coat and hat next to Gestapo uniforms, and a man who ultimately has to leave to fight for his country- what he loves (Marion, the theatre) must take a backseat for what's right.

But in her own way, Marion is doing her part for the war effort. Her “Jewish” plays provide much needed levity for the French people (the show is notably called Disappearance). The standing ovation for Catharine, Lucas, and Bertrand at the film’s end is more than just for the characters’ success on stage or Lucas’ return to the public after the war. It’s a sign of respect for anyone who carries on making art through the most trying times. Truffaut is most romantic about art, and here art has the possibility to inspire people and keep them going even in the nation’s darkest hour. It’s a fitting ending that’s political without jettisoning Truffaut’s romantic tendencies. In short, Godard can eat it.

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