Polished and sophisticated but also a bit on the trifling side, the World War II drama The Last Metro was the final major international success for François Truffaut, a titan of the French New Wave and one of the most gifted storytellers ever to work in cinema. Telling the story of theater people who defy the Nazis in occupied Paris, The Last Metro is among Truffaut’s most visually beautiful films, thanks to luminous photography by the great Néstor Almendros, and it pairs French-cinema grande dame Catherine Deneuve with Gérard Depardieu, then a rising star of Gallic films. All participants operate at the height of their powers, creating a movie that’s humane, intelligent, romantic, and suspenseful. The Last Metro is bloated at 131 minutes, and the ending is so tidy that it makes much of what came before seem inconsequential. Yet The Last Metro is unusual among movies about occupied France inasmuch as the material is not inherently depressing or tragic. The Last Metro is an inspirational story about survivors who refuse to compromise their principles, thereby getting the last laugh on their jack-booted oppressors. It’s not quite a feel-good WWII movie, but it’s certainly not a feel-bad WWII movie.
When the picture opens, actor Bernard Granger (Depardieu) arrives for an audition at a theater operated by the beautiful actress Marion Steiner (Deneuve), who manages the acting troupe and the building because her husband, acclaimed director Lucas Steiner (Heinz Bennent), is Jew who fled Paris to escape the Nazis. Or so it seems. Turns out Lucas is living in seclusion, using the theater’s basement as a hideout. Once Marion begins rehearsals for a new play in which she costars with Bernard, Lucas listens to their acting through pipes carrying sound from the stage to the basement. At night, once everyone else has left the building, Marion joins Lucas to get notes on the day’s work. Lots of things conspire to disrupt this delicate situation. French citizens collaborating with the Nazis discover clues suggesting that Lucas never left the country. Lucas gets stir-crazy in the basement, threatening to risk capture by leaving his hideout. And Bernard becomes romantically attracted to Marion, creating a complex triangle while the actors play lovers onstage.
Despite being written, directed, and acted with the utmost care and refinement, The Last Metro has the feel of a soap opera, with characters pursuing crisscrossing agendas while guarding dangerous secrets. And while the pulpy nature of the material probably contributed to the film’s popularity, demanding viewers can’t help but expect more given the level of talent involved and the sprawling length of the movie. Taken for what it is, however, The Last Metro goes down smoothly. Deneuve is so exquisite to behold that she commands the screen even when she’s doing nothing, Depardieu hits the right note of brash arrogance, and Bennent is believable as a high-minded artiste. As always, Truffaut conjures an immersive sense of time and place.
The Last Metro: GROOVY