Passion, privacy, tension and terror all come to head in Truffaut’s stately theatrical occupation epic
Director: François Truffaut
Cast: Catherine Deneuve (Marion Steiner), Gérard Depardieu (Bernard Granger), Jean Poiret (Jean-Loup Cottins), Heinz Bennent (Lucas Steiner), Andréa Ferréol (Arlette Guillaume), Paulette Dubost (Germaine Fabre), Sabine Haudepin (Nadine Marsac), Jean-Louis Richard (Daxiat), Maurice Risch (Raymond Boursier)
The curtain parts and we are introduced to a magic world of imagination and drama play out before us on stage. But how can the actors immerse themselves in this, while such huge drama plays out in the real world? It’s the dilemma of the Montmatre theatrical troupe in Paris during the Occupation. With war raging with all its complex moral choices and dangers, how can you focus on the art within – or for the matter process the complex emotional entanglements in an already claustrophobic profession only made worse by the perils of Nazi occupied Paris and their pet collaborators.
Truffaut’s film is called The Last Metro as it recalls a period during the occupation when hundreds of thousands of people crowded into Parisian theatres to stay warm at night before rushing to catch the final train home before the curfew. The Montmatre Theatre is run by Marion Steiner (Catherine Deneuve), a film star turned stage actor struggling to keep the theatre going in the absence of her Jewish theatre-director husband Lucas (Heinz Bennett) – who, unknown to anyone else, is hiding in the theatre basement. Bernard Granger (Gérard Depardieu) is her new lead actor for their latest Ibsenesque production: but his presence will stir powerful feelings in the embattled Marion.
Truffaut’s film steers away from his other more famous work – the sort of vibrancy and romance of earlier films like Jules et Jim or The Four Hundred Blows or the inventive playfulness of Day for Night. Instead, The Last Metro is a more formal, classically shot, interior piece that revels in small moments and touches of emotional investment so subtle and glancing some viewers might not even notice them. It’s also – surprisingly for cinema’s leading cineaste – a film deeply in love with the mechanics and backstage drama of theatre, subtly contrasting the claustrophobia and intensity of such spaces with the oppressive world-shrinking and glance-over-your-shoulder anxiety of occupation.
It’s also a superb character study, with a quite brilliantly complex and compelling performance from Catherine Deneuve. A starlet with a double burden – not only keeping the theatre alive, but also her husband – Marion is a woman pulled so hard and so overwhelmingly in so many competing directions, it’s taking every ounce of her control to hold herself together. Facing financial pressures, censorship pressures and the constant fear that a single wrong word could see her theatre ripped away from her and her husband discovered and killed, she maintains a cold and professional veneer that rarely, if ever, slips.
So little does it, that Bernard – played with an effortlessly underplayed grace and charm by Gérard Depardieu that belies his Rugby-player bellicosity – is, for the most part, blissfully unaware of Marion’s growing, unspoken, attraction to him. A love she seems hardly able to acknowledge herself, not least because it feels like an even deeper betrayal now of her husband, hiding out in the basement and utterly dependent on her, than it would in peacetime.
Lucas – a wonderful Heinz Bennent – is himself teetering on the edge of falling apart from the sustained effects of acute cabin pressure. Never leaving the damp theatre basement – apart from surreptitious trips to the stage late at night – Lucas’ attitude to his enforced imprisonment moves from a larkish boys-own adventure into an increasingly bitter resentment. Directing the show from afar – a drain has been hooked up so he can listen in on rehearsals – he provides late night feedback to Marion to accompany the detailed handwritten notes he ‘left behind’. Mapping out future productions on his cell walls, Lucas avoids the suspicion that the constant pressure of concealing him has tipped their relationship from romance to one of anxiety-ridden responsibility.
It contrasts with the play the company is performing: where, in typical Ibsen style, the lead is a tragedy tinged woman, suffering memory loss, who falls into a deep but mutually painful love with her son’s tutor. Even from the rehearsals, Marion begins to feel some bleed of this dramatic relationship into her real world: she asks Bernard to not touch her during rehearsals, as if worried that this moment of physicality could lead to consequences she cannot control.
Touch is a key sensation in The Last Metro – as if moments of physical contact and intimacy carry even more weight in a world where no one can be trusted and every word must be carefully watched. Bernard uses a repeated routine of palm reading to try and seduce (with mixed results) a series of women (most notably lesbian production designer Arlette – strikingly played by Andréa Ferréol – who, in a lovely flourish, he describes as longing for “like a warm croissant”). Physical contact – the light caress of a face and hands – is crucial to the film. Truffaut’s camera zooms in on moments where hands take each other, either in longing, understanding or – in a sequence where Marion journeys to Gestapo headquarters – with the threat of imminent violence.
Closing distance is particularly important in a period where all contact must be carefully judged and measured. Collaborators, like powerful press chief Daxiat, will use the smallest slight or word out of place to justify pulling your world down. Played with a hissable vileness by Jean-Louis Richard, Daxiat is a pompous, self-important, two-faced and vindictive man parroting Nazi slogans and revelling in his power to destroy careers. But, small man though he is, the Occupation gives him power – when Bernard angrily confronts him for his rudeness about Marion in his review, its Bernard who Marion is furious at for his recklessness.
It’s because hanging over every moment – and constantly playing in Deneuve’s expressive eyes – is the dread of what will be found if her theatre is searched or how doomed her husband will be if it is closed. Finding a play that passes muster with the censors and pleases the masses is literally a matter of life and death.
Truffaut echoes the claustrophobia of occupied France in his shooting of the cramped backstage world – and he and Suzanne Schiffman in their screenplay add to this with their look at backstage politics and affections between actors, stagehands and crew. Even the outside is shot like an interior – and Truffaut never bothers to make the locations feel like anything other than sets, as if the whole world is a claustrophobic theatre – with extensive use of mid and close-up shots and subtle tracking shots that maintain the theatrical effect.
It does make for a film that can feel stately and a little too heritage – and its undeniable you miss some of the energy of Truffaut’s other films (you can’t imagine his idol Hitchcock ever shooting a frame of The Last Metro – or what he would have made of its luxurious pace). Its subtle energy is sometimes so easy-to-miss that it can be easy for parts of the film to pass you by. Plotlines – such as Bernard’s support of the resistance – sit awkwardly at times within the framework, and the film’s boiling down of Vichy France to (essentially) one bad apple told a story about Occupation that was very pleasing to the French self-image (no wonder if was a massive hit).
The Last Metro is at times a little too in-love with its cultural heritage and the quiet professional skill of its making. But, it counter-balances this with some involving and subtle work from all its principles and director: and in Denevue (especially) and Depardieu it had two of the greatest actors in French cinema at the top of their game. Multi-layered and demanding, it’s a film that makes you work from its newsreel opening to its fourth-wall, metatextual ending, riffing on romantic entanglements, art, burdens and the oppression of occupation. Perhaps too knowingly prestige to be great, but still an essential watch.