François Truffaut’s The Last Metro (1980)

LAST METRO, THE (1980)

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François Truffaut was a nostalgic sentimentalist, someone who enjoyed the idea of telling stories without too much cinematic edge or experimentation getting in the way. If you’ve ever read about his relationship with Jean-Luc Godard, or watched the documentary Two in the Wave (2010), you know that Truffaut and Godard veered off in different directions after their early successes breaking through the barriers of French cinema in the late 1950s. Godard experimented more and more, overturning cinematic norms while Truffaut increasingly embraced them. But just because one embraces norms and decides to work within them, while another attempts to revolutionize cinema with each new release, doesn’t mean one is better or worse than the other. In the end, Truffaut was far more successful with the public and commercial success is often equated with artistic compromise. But hiding within Truffaut’s movies are insights about art and politics that are perhaps more meaningful, and hit their mark more accurately, precisely because Truffaut worked within the system, so to speak. One such example, and his last critically and commercially successful film, is 1980′s The Last Metro, a film both rewarding in its story of love and art amidst horror, and utterly frustrating in its standard melodramatic banalities.

The story of The Last Metro begins during the Nazi occupation of France as Marion Steiner (Catherine Deneuve), the lead actress of the Theatre Montmartre, a successful theater run by her husband, Lucas Steiner (Heinz Bennent), takes on the tasks of running the theater herself because Lucas has fled the country as a fugitive Jew. She, a gentile, manages the day to day business of the theater while also starring in its upcoming production, The Vanishing Woman, opposite a new actor just hired on from the Grand Guignol, Bernard Granger (Gérard Depardieu). Of course, since her husband hasn’t shown up in England or America, there’s a question as to where he actually is. We quickly discover he never fled at all and is hiding in the cellar, known only to Marion, and ghost directing the play from below. Marion must take his suggestions to the director without anyone suspecting a thing. She must also cozy up to Nazi sympathizers like a theater critic named Daxiat (Jean-Louis Richard) to get the proper permits and, hopefully, a good review. Complicating matters is the fact that she is falling for her new co-star but isn’t sure he recognizes this, or cares. And, of course, she must keep Lucas’ whereabouts a secret while also trying to arrange safe passage for him out of the country.

LAST METRO, THE (1980)

The story is, ostensibly, about art continuing on in the face of tragedy. Though the film announces at its opening that people went to the theater to stay warm and break the monotony of life during occupation, and had to get the last metro home before the curfew, it never really gathers any tension around this idea. There’s nothing wrong, of course, with a title having only metaphorical intentions, but the opening text sets up the idea of fear, terror and desperation and then backs away from all of it. In fact, there’s barely a single scene in the movie where there is any tension at all, either about the Nazis discovering Lucas, or punishing Marion or hurting anyone. There are two scenes where the Nazis interact with the characters in a threatening way, one involving a minor character, in which he is carted off, and another in which they search the theater, and in both scenes they are about as menacing as the Nazis in The Sound of Music (1965). That is to say, they serve their purpose as standard heavies and nothing more. Despite dealing with a story that is intimately linked to one of history’s greatest atrocities, there is never a sense that anything very bad is about to happen, or even happening at all.

Truffaut said that the film wasn’t just about the Nazis or the Holocaust, but about intolerance in general and thus includes two gay characters, the play’s director, Cottins (Jean Poiret), and the costume designer Arlette (Andréa Ferréol) but here’s the problem: neither of them suffers any intolerance in the story. There is one brief moment where Bernard actually utters a derisive name for a gay man in Cottins’ presence only to quickly say, “No offense.” When Arlette is discovered in a lesbian relationship by Marion, she says she doesn’t want Marion to judge her and, indeed, Marion says she isn’t judging her and that’s that. For a film about intolerance, you’d be hard-pressed to find a single damn scene of intolerance anywhere in the movie.

Even the scenes of Lucas hiding in the cellar are oddly comforting. He has a table, radio, bed, lamps, papers, etc. He gets nice meals from Marion and goes upstairs to shower at night. There’s even a door in the cellar that leads to an alley where he can get some fresh air. And somehow the Nazis don’t even think to look here for him until months after his disappearance.

LAST METRO, THE (1980)

And yet the movie works. It works because at its center is the story of a husband more in love with his art than his wife, a wife more in love with her co-star than her husband, and a young actor looking for purpose in his life beyond the stage. Despite Truffaut’s claims of a movie about intolerance, The Last Metro is really a relationship movie with the occupation as a backdrop. This allows the love triangle at its center to flourish without being overshadowed by history. And it allows gentle but firm statements about the importance of art, even as distraction, in the world around us.

The Last Metro is not a provocative film. If Godard famously railed against Truffaut for not being political in his movies, he had a point. And although they weren’t talking when this film was released, no doubt if they were Godard would have given him a mouthful about how meek the movie’s voice was and he would have been right. If you can’t make a bold statement against Nazism in a story taking place in occupied France, it’s doubtful you can make a bold statement about anything. But Truffaut wasn’t about loud statements or using the cinema as a sounding board for his grievances against the world. He was a storyteller who used the techniques of cinema, learned from decades of study and practice, to reveal emotional truths to the widest audience possible. There’s an argument to be made for both sides, I suppose. One can relentlessly attack and reach only a few, but change them dramatically, or gently nudge and reach the masses. Truffaut chose the latter and with The Last Metro, wrote and directed the film that would epitomize this approach. He made two more films, but The Last Metro is his true swan song and his lasting testament to the cinema he so dearly loved.

Greg Ferrara

 

3 Responses François Truffaut’s The Last Metro (1980)
Posted By kingrat : April 24, 2017 12:43 am

Greg, this is an exceptionally acute analysis of the strengths and limitations of THE LAST METRO. I’d only add the close connections to the film Truffaut admired in spite of himself, CHILDREN OF PARADISE. THE LAST METRO is the three stars out of four version, whereas CHILDREN OF PARADISE is the five stars out of four version.

I believe Truffaut said that he wanted Raoul Coutard to give a reddish look to the film because this resembled the film stock in use during the 40s. For me, this aspect of the film intrudes too much of the story; I’m much too aware of the reddish glow at the expense of the story.

THE LAST METRO, except for the reddish glow, is not too different from the French filmmakers Truffaut condemned as a young critic, and is none the worse for that.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : April 25, 2017 12:27 pm

Kingrat, it is indeed reminiscent of what Truffaut himself called the “archaic” French cinema of melodrama and theatricality. The thing is, I don’t dislike it at all for being that and Truffaut, as he aged, like most of us, probably realized he had too harshly judged the filmmakers before him. Good God, I can certainly tell you that some of my oh-so-wise judgments about movies when I was younger, I now look back on with cringing embarrassment.

I have not watched Children of Paradise in years but have to again soon. I just re-read Truffaut’s statement on it – “I would give up all my films to have directed Children of Paradise.”

Posted By swac44 : August 31, 2017 8:39 pm

I rewatched the film today for the first time in years, and remembered my disappointment that the subplot about the resistance barely makes a dent in the story, when I wanted it to amount to so much more. I still relish the depiction of backstage life under difficult circumstances, and the star power of Deneuve and Depardieu goes without saying.

But it’s no Au Revoir Les Enfants when it comes to emotional impact.

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