The Last Metro
The romanticism of François Truffaut’s The Last Metro (1980) is just as flagrant as it was in his 1973 masterpiece Day For Night, the great movie revolving around the making of a not-so-great movie. Only this time such saccharinity doesn’t fly quite so effortlessly. One can sugarcoat the trials and tribulations of moviemaking as long as it’s clear that it’s essentially a cinematic love letter to the medium. But one cannot necessarily do so when it comes to putting a spotlight on a theatrical production set during the dangerous days of the German occupation of Paris. All problems seem vapid when contrasted with the genocidal mania we know is lurking somewhere off camera.
But because Truffaut maintains the disposition that art can be the utmost powerful tool in fighting times of struggle, political or otherwise, The Last Metro is able to divert us enough to distract from its more problematic undercurrents. In addition to being profoundly emotionally persuasive, it is also visually ravishing, emulating the textures of a 1940s melodrama. And it is stunningly performed, drawing exquisite characterizations from its leads, Catherine Deneuve and Gérard Depardieu. It is a flawed film, but it is also an undoubtedly good, sometimes even great one.
Set during the height of the Second World War, The Last Metro concerns itself with the plight of the Steiners, a husband and wife team who runs a struggling theater in the middle of a frostbitten City of Lights. The wife, Marion (Deneuve), is a creative force, the leading actress starring in the company’s latest play, and is Gentile. The husband, Lucas (Heinz Bennett), is a director, an innovator, and Jewish. Nazis lurk about the premises, sniffing for cheese. Marion spreads rumors that Lucas has run off to South America. But he is, in fact, secretly living in the theater’s cellar, trying to remain optimistic despite pangs of stir craziness.
But the film is, at its heart, a backstage drama, a rose-colored merger of clashing personalities and occupational desperation and artistic hunger. All is shaded in lipstick reds and softened blacks and whites — The Last Metro is a war melodrama with just enough Technicolor filtering to make it appear as some sort of glowing, dreamy romance. It should be a lot more serious than that, considering everything going on is much more serious than the good overcoming evil simplicity Truffaut tries to put at the movie’s forefront. “Nobody seems to really understand that there's a war on out there,” Roger Ebert noted in his review of the film.
Like Ebert, I’m firm in my belief that The Last Metro is an effective movie: it’s dramatically supple, beautifully mounted, wondrously performed. But it is not naturalistic enough in its portrayal of the Occupation. It is inarguably too bloomy and warm for a movie which sees real-life, bloodthirsty malevolence so nearby all the action. And there’s something unshakably off about that.
Still, the feature is engaging, insurmountably indebted to Deneuve’s always magnificent presence — she is at her most gorgeous, her most artistically apt here — and Depardieu’s offhanded likability. But one wishes there were a touch of grit within this sentimental cinematic world. God knows it was not as flush as this in reality. B