Friday, 28 January 2011

AFED #27: Le Dernier Métro [The Last Metro] (France, 1980), Dir. François Truffaut

No country holds the cinema in higher regard as an art form than the French. During a trip to Paris when I was fourteen I recall flicking through the tv channels one morning and stumbling upon a studio-based discussion programme in which intellectuals were vigorously arguing about the films of James Dean.

I've no idea whether this was a regular occurrence but needless to say I can't imagine Alan Titchmarsh or Paul o'Grady (c-list daytime celebrities, for the benefit of non-British readers) ever chairing a debate about the work of Montgomery Clift. In fact finding any kind of serious discussion of the arts is a rarity on British television, which is decidedly not the case across the Channel.

There's a drawback to such earnestness though; sometimes you can't see the wood for the trees. The French have produced some great films, but there are plenty of others that are stultifyingly dull. A particular object of my enmity are their historical dramas and biopics. These are typically well received by foreign critics and there's a strong sense such productions are consciously designed to export a glossy idea of Frenchness to an international audience.

Still, they leave me cold. One example I watched just a couple of days before commencing this blog was the Edith Piaf biopic La Vie en Rose. With no disrespect to Marion Cotillard's fine performance in the lead role, it was an unimaginative plod through another tragic life story that had me checking my watch at regular intervals. I might as well have checked out Piaf's Wikipedia entry and spared myself two and a half hours. Let's face it, most of us only really want to hear 'Non, je ne regrette rien' anyway, we can do without the life story.

Of course the same criticisms could be made of British cinema and something like The King's Speech, but for all its virtues British Cinema has rarely blazed a trail or sought to remake the cinematic world quite so radically as the French New Wave. Its leading light François Truffaut perhaps had that inherent conservatism in mind when he said there was an incompatibility between the words "British" and "cinema".

Yet Truffaut himself wasn't immune from making such films, although I'm sure he'd rebuke my ignorance for describing The Last Metro as such.


Charting the rehearsal and production of a play at a theatre in Nazi-occupied Paris,
it was the second part of Truffaut's planned trilogy about the performing arts that began with 1973's La nuit américaine [Day for Night. Catherine Deneuve stars as Marion Steiner, the theatre's manager, principal star and wife of director Lucas Steiner, a German Jew who has apparently fled the country.

Only he hasn't; unbeknownst to everyone save Marion, Lucas (Heinz Bennent) has been hiding in the theatre's basement. With attempts to facilitate his escape proving unsuccessful, Lucas is effectively a prisoner as work commences on the the theatre's new production, for which actor Bernard Granger (a young Gérard Depardieu) is recruited to co-star with Marion.

As the film progresses a love triangle develops between the three principals which is never fully resolved. The production is also endangered by a villainous theatre critic, Daxiat, who is responsible for issuing visas on behalf of the Nazis which allow the theatres to stay open in occupation.

The theatres had assumed an important role for the oppressed Parisians as a place of vitality and escape, and it was this which drew Truffaut to the subject. A key stylistic device which he employed was to have almost all scenes as either interiors or taking place at night. It was intended to reflect the fact their 'real' lives were conducted almost entirely outside the glare of the Nazis.

But for me it actually weakens the film, creating the impression of a tv drama where scale is necessarily reduced by budgetary constraints. The effect isn't helped when Truffaut tacks on some of the old New Wave tricks; a piece of commentary coming from a radio describes a live explosion then clumsily contrives to explain how the bomb appears to have been concealed in a record player (Bernard, who works with the Resistance, has been tampering with an old player shortly before). Such alienation effects serve no practical purpose here.

Equally it was difficult to feel much sympathy for the characters. Deneuve is such a distant actress she can be difficult to warm to; the idea here is that the duplicity of Marion's life makes her the way she is. Bennent and Depardieu are likewise perfectly fine but lack much one can relate to.

Which leaves the whole as another rather boring French wartime film. It would have been nice to arouse a little more interest in what was going on, but even after a second viewing my attitude towards it didn't really improve. Oh well.

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