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The Last Metro was the most crowd-pleasing film of François Truffaut’s latter career, sweeping an armload of prizes at France’s Oscar equivalent, the César Awards. It was also as personal a film as he had ever made, and that denotes the film’s distinction: it is a private memoir graced with popular appeal. In it Truffaut conjures his memories of the German occupation of France, culling from his schoolboy years and his lifelong infatuation with the creative arts. Although the subject of the occupation had certainly been broached before in French film, it was still not a popular one at the time, with culturewide shame over collaboration lingering. But Truffaut, departing from the paranoid melodrama of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1943 Le corbeau and the psychological examination of Louis Malle’s 1974 Lacombe, Lucien—to name two well-known examples—took a guiltless approach to the heroism and nonheroism of that grim period. He invoked nostalgia and supplied relief. In 1970, he had told France-Soir: “For me, who was an adolescent at the time, the image of France cut in two, divided into Germans and Resistance fighters, is false. I see a much calmer France.” This story of the Théâtre Montmartre putting on a production in 1942, while under the heavy surveillance of Vichy collaborators, focuses on the different troupe members’ more intimate and peculiar acts of valor. Catherine Deneuve plays Marion Steiner, the actress wife of the Théâtre Montmartre’s Jewish director, Lucas Steiner (Heinz Bennent), who hides from the Nazis in a cellar beneath the stage. Marion and the theater’s acting director, costume designer, stage manager, and other performers are joined by Bernard Granger (Gérard Depardieu), a rising star at the Grand Guignol, to mount a play called The Vanished Woman, with staging notes from Lucas. For Bernard, a member of the underground Resistance, the Théâtre Montmartre fulfills two needs, for new acting challenges and wartime radicalism. He views both romantically.
The film is romantic in the broadest and most specific senses of the term, exploring several levels of heroism among both patriots and lovers. Its concept reflects the influence of one of Truffaut’s favorite films, Jean Renoir’s 1953 The Golden Coach, a celebration of theater that follows a traveling commedia dell’arte troupe in South America. (Lucas Steiner is first rumored to have left France for South America.) Truffaut also named his production company Les Films du Carrosse, paying tribute to Renoir and expressing the New Wave’s modernist engagement with film history. That complex self-consciousness is apparent from The Last Metro’s opening scenes, which mix documentary footage with period re-creations, including shots of contemporary film posters (Christian-Jaque’s La symphonie fantastique, Bel Ami, Louis Delluc’s Fièvre, Emil Jannings in Le président Krüger), to impart the texture of life during the occupation.
For Truffaut, theater parallels cinema, and both parallel life. The Last Metro’s title refers to the practice under which Parisian theaters ended shows in time for patrons to catch trains home before the Gestapo’s curfew. Political reality was part of their professional responsibility, despite inhabiting the insular world of imagination and make-believe. This was a fleeting theme in Day for Night (1973), Truffaut’s valentine to the filmmaking process, in which he touched on the political economy of filmmaking. But the theater setting of The Last Metro imposes a constant political awareness. Still, although Truffaut alludes to actual history in this film, his goal is theatrical: he’s after emotional verisimilitude. The Last Metro presents the splendors and miseries of the occupation era as they might be recalled in a dream.
Truffaut re-creates a wartime theater milieu with the passion of an ardent cavalier. The film’s tone originates in Depardieu’s Bernard, with his brash, spirited commitment to both theater and liberation (he is an upstart like the young actor that Jean-Pierre Léaud, Truffaut’s frequent alter ego, beginning with the Antoine Doinel series, portrays in Day for Night). The odd, fascinating part of The Last Metro’s Resistance thriller plot is how it loosens suspense about whether or not Marion can successfully hide Lucas and still, with the troupe, put a production over on the Nazis. Truffaut swirls together scenes of theater folk coping with each other’s temperaments, and his narrative detours into larger themes: Marion and Lucas sustaining their clandestine conjugal visits, improvising the concept and practicality of marriage; Bernard’s surreptitious Resistance meetings, which parallel his outrageous flirtations, even with the unaroused designer (Andréa Ferréol); an ingenue (Sabine Haudepin) moonlighting with film auditions, following her artistic drive despite accusations of compromise; Cottins (Jean Poiret), the director of The Vanished Woman, subtly operating out of a double closet, fending off the oppressive hand of bigoted critic and collaborator Daxiat (Jean-Louis Richard); the wardrobe mistress (Paulette Dubost) amusing her colleagues by telling of her own romantic double life. Each character’s personal details are conveyed via a series of vignettes on love, passion, fidelity.
Distance and imagination allow Truffaut to depict World War II through dual experiences—as public and covert actions, politics and art. He interweaves a history of the world and a history of feelings, rather than present a single-track commemoration of bravery or humiliation. No doubt the perspective is informed by Truffaut’s trenchant identification with the restricted Lucas Steiner’s panicky sense of exile and mortality. Exploring the creation of stage illusion doesn’t retreat from political reality; its truth is evident everywhere in the troupe’s compromises, the ingenuity of black-market self-preservation. Most of all, it is felt in the sense that love is not thwarted but under pressure, and so, like art, its release is a form of triumph and creativity.
During a visit with her confined husband, Marion teases him about his angry anti-Nazi outburst: “You dirty racist. My mother warned me I’d never be happy with a Jew.” And Lucas teasingly seduces her with quotes from Nazi propaganda: “Not content with monopolizing the stage and the screen, the Jews steal our most beautiful women.” Truffaut polishes this moment of audacious irony with a powerfully erotic composition—Deneuve looking down modestly, a figure of adoration and humility, while Lucas repeats and takes possession of the line “our most beautiful women.” The quick fade-out forces a rush of ideas and feelings that is breathtaking. In The Last Metro, Truffaut looks for the complexity and ambiguity that transcend politics.
A fundamental component of The Last Metro’s sub-rosa vision of the typical occupation adventure can be found in the wit of cinematographer Nestor Almendros’s visual style. Keyed to soft, chalky hues that suggest reverie as well as the sepia tones of aged newsreels, the film’s pink, smoky, pale imagery occasionally turns dramatically somber—brownish—as during the candlelit air raid scene, or radiant, as in the gold-burnished stage performances and the red nightclub outing where the Théâtre Montmartre troupe anxiously attempts to relax. Almendros innovates a contrast of romantic intensity and pastel noir. “We had to reconstruct the atmosphere of the years 1940 to 1945 through the use of light,” he recalled in his autobiography. And he succeeds in giving this quintessential theatrical tale an extraordinarily cinematic feel. Almendros’s work, especially his delicately textured movie star close-ups, complements Truffaut’s celebration of the icons Deneuve and Depardieu.
As Marion and Bernard circle each other, Truffaut’s reticent commingling of his two big box-office stars creates a tantalizing tension underneath the story itself. (Lucas commands that Bernard and Marion “play not like a duet but a conspiracy.”) Among the photos decorating Bernard’s dressing room is one capturing a slightly younger Depardieu in Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1900. Marion describes him to her husband: “He’s a little like Jean Gabin in La bête humaine. Very physical, and yet quite gentle.” This Day for Night–style play with movie history continues with Marion, whose life, torn between two men, juggling her public and private selves, resembles a masque of Deneuve’s own cinematic legacy. Marion’s confession to Bernard—too good to reveal here—provides a definitive unraveling of the Deneuve mystique, breaking down the narcissistic beauty to reveal less confident but more sympathetic emotion.
For contemporary cinephiles, The Last Metro sets the stage for Deneuve and Depardieu’s reunion twenty-four years later in André Téchiné’s Changing Times, another politically revisionist romance. Téchiné’s closing scene intentionally references The Last Metro’s. It’s an homage to an homage, but it also, uncannily, underscores that Truffaut’s film achieves the ultimate coup de théâtre.
Armond White is film critic for the New York Press and 2009 chairman of the New York Film Critics Circle. His expanded essay What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Movies is forthcoming from Resistance Media.