FFF: The last Metro – Truffaut and the mightiest of tensions

I was so lucky last night!

Closing night of the French Film festival , and I was handed a very nice glass of wine, told to sit back and enjoy one of Francois Truffaut’s greatest films.

This is pure heaven for little Lisa.

Here’s the thing. As far as French New Wave goes (and for me that was one of the most important moments in art history) Truffaut isn’t my top director. he’s still far better than almost everyone, but I don’t think his films quite stand the test of time.  He’s a bit of a swinging dick – you know…. a ‘man’s man’ and that makes him a little dated. however, because it was Truffaut and the big screen, I went along.   i was very pleasantly surprised. Its definitely my favourite of his so far – perhaps on par with The 400 Blows which is a great film. This was subtle, and all the characters are very interesting.

Set during the last years of the German Occupation of France, The Last Metro tells the story of Lucas Steiner (Heinz Bennent), a Jewish theater director who is forced to hide out in his cellar of his Parisian theater in order to escape Nazi persecution. He is aided in this by his wife Marion (played by Catherine Deneuve), the lead actress in the production they are currently mounting of a Norwegian play, ironically titled La disparue (The Disappearance). The films leading man, Bernard Granger (Gérard Depardieu) performs his role brilliantly opposite Marion. As the two actors fall slowly in love, the husband, forced to watch from his hiding place beneath the stage,  can do nothing.

François Truffaut’s The Last Metro is a dazzlingly subversive work. The film has the form of a more or less conventional melodrama, about a small Parisian theater company during the 1942-44 Nazi occupation, though the film’s methods are so systematically unconventional that it becomes a gently comic, romantic meditation on love, loyalty, heroism, and history.  It is a uniquely subversive film.  The Last Metro is a melodrama that discreetly refuses to exercise its melodramatic options. It’s also a love story that scarcely recognizes its lovers. Though the setting is a legitimate theater, the Theatre Montmartre, it’s not an “inside theater” movie. Almost all the conventions of cinematic storytelling have been turned upon their head.

Marion and Bernard fall in love, true – but this drives them apart, forcing each to work hard to create reuses and diversions in order to distract them from their feelings. Just as there is only one love scene in the play they act out, there is almost no love scene in the film.  it is the tension between them we feel as it drives the narrative forward. The Villains are the Nazis, however the real ‘bad guys’ of the film are the fellow French who will – driven by an insane paranoia – hand each other over to the occupying forces. the arch villain of the film is a critic!  He is based on a real character, a critic who became so powerful working for the Germans he was almost able to take over theatre in Paris. That Truffaut choses a critic as his arch-villain is only one of the many witty moments, tributes to his own childhood, and in jokes that appear in the film. Most of them can be picked up by the astute viewer, however and it only makes the film more enjoyable. For example there is a scene where a german soldier ruffles a small boys hair.  In disgust his mother rushes him home to wash his hair. This actually happened to Truffaut, although the washer was his grandmother.

The Last Metro is about a particular time in history. Its Theatre Montmartre is a refuge—actual in the case of one character, and psychological for the others. The theater provides them survival. The Last Metro also bears out Truffaut’s love of art and its capacity to survive even during the most tumultuous of times. The story takes place in 1942 and revolves primarily around the people working inside the Théâtre Montmatre, a celebrated Parisian theater that, like all theaters during the Occupation, is in constant danger of being shut down by the collaborationist Vichy government.

While there are many characters in the film whose interweaving narratives drive its momentum, the real hero is the Théâtre Montmatre itself, which becomes a symbol of the power of art and the nature of resistance, both of which Truffaut romanticizes almost to a fault. We can see this in legendary cinematographer Nestor Almendros’s use of color, which is primarily shades of amber and brown that are offset by the striking use of red inside the theater, suggesting the passion of artistic triumph just inside its otherwise meager façade. This romanticism is perhaps why the film was the most commercially successful of Truffaut’s career and why it went home with 10 César Awards. There is no doubt that The Last Metro is a crowd-pleasing movie that celebrates its characters’ fortitude during a grim time that many viewers at the time could still easily remember, and for that reason many critics who had celebrated Truffaut’s earlier, more aesthetically and thematically radical films like Jules and Jim (1962) dismissed it. And, while it is not one of Truffaut’s strongest works, it is nevertheless a striking and engaging film, one that reflects the great filmmaker’s love of artistic creation and its role in maintaining humanity.

Definitely one to see.