1980 was near the end of the distinguished career of Francois Truffaut. Every film of his I've seen was after the fact, even though he was still releasing movies while I've been an active filmgoer. I just wasn't ready for his movies at that point. My only exposure to him was from his role in "Close Encounters." From reading about the making of that film, I knew he was a director. It wasn't until I was 15 and I saw a theatrical screening of "The 400 Blows" that I finally woke up to his work. I've spent the home video era catching up with his movies as much as possible, and now, with the release of "The Last Metro" on Criterion BluRay, I've finally had my chance to see his last major hit, both critically and commercially.
Set in Nazi-Occupied France, it's the story of the Theatre Montmartre and its struggles to mount a production in 1942. The theater's star director, Lucas Steiner (Heinz Bennent), is Jewish at a time when that can get you killed, so he goes into hiding in the cellar of the theater. Everyone's told that he fled the country, so the theater company moves forward with a new production, a place called "The Vanished Woman." Although his assistant director Jean-Loup Cottins (Jean Poiret) is ostensibly directing, he's working from notes that were "left behind" by Lucas.
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His wife, Marion (Catherine Deneuve) is a famous film actress, the Aryan ideal, and she serves not only as the on-stage box-office draw for the play but also off-stage as the liason between Lucas and the outside world. One of the richest veins of material in the film has to do with the way their marriage suffers under the strain of the situation. It's smartly-written, ever-shifting, a great dynamic that I can't recall ever seeing played out onscreen before. It's all about dependence on someone else and the way that plays into someone's sense of personal power. When a lead actor is hired for the play, it introduces a new variable into that married dynamic. Bernard Granger (Gerard Depardieu) is a rising star who made his reputation at the Grand Guignol, and he may also be a member of the Resistance. He's a man of action while Lucas is forced to cower in his cellar all day. He's young and virile, "a little like a young Jean Gabin," and Marion finds herself playing love scenes onstage while Lucas listens from below and gives her notes on how to make those scenes "more sincere."
There's an oddly nostalgic mood to the movie considering what an emotional sore spot the Occupation was for France. But maybe that's the point. Maybe Truffaut's film is about all the life that happens even at the hardest moments, the way we find joy in sorrow, the ways we live in the face of death. The title refers to the final train Parisians have to catch if they want to make it home before the Nazi curfew. But in a larger sense, it refers to a grab for meaning or pleasure or comfort in the face of horror, and Truffaut sees the attempt, that assertation of the human spirit, as something not only worth a bit of nostalgia, but essential to never forget.
The Criterion BluRay is gorgeous, perfectly reproducing the plush decadent cinematography by Nestor Almendros. The print is not flawless, but it's such a good transfer that it feels like you're looking at film, an actual print, and not just a digital file. The commentary with Depardieu is very detailed and informative, and overall, it's an exemplary treatment of a film I happily add now to my personal canon.
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