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THE LAST METRO
Blu-ray Edition

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Catherine Deneuve, Gerard Depardieu, Jean Poiret, Heinz Bennent
Director:  Francois Truffaut
Audio:  LPCM Mono
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.66:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  131 Minutes
Release Date:  March 24, 2009

“There are two women in you.”

“Sorry, but neither one wants to sleep with you.”

Film ***1/2

In German-occupied France during World War II, the Nazis held Paris under a strict curfew.  While the French citizens still enjoyed movies and theatre as escapism (and to get some heat), it was imperative that all shows end early enough so that everyone could catch the last metro and be home on time.

Such is the backdrop of Francois Truffaut’s delightful The Last Metro.  Though he claimed inspiration from Marcel Ophul’s landmark documentary about French resistance The Sorrow and the Pity, the tone and spirit of his film may owe more to Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be.  The enemy may have broken through the gate, your world may be turned upside down…but the show must go on.

As the film opens, a voiceover explains the parameters of the Nazi occupation, and mentions a popular theatre director named Lucas Steiner (Bennent) who had to flee from France.  His last name explains it all.

His Gentile wife Marion (the radiant Deneuve) is left in charge.  She is an actress, but now has to step up and fill her husband’s role as well.  The first order of business is getting their new production past German censors.  It’s a Swedish play of little consequence, but nothing offensive, or worse yet, Jewish about it.  The new director Jean-Loup Cottins (Poiret) has pages of notes left behind from Steiner.  And soon, a new actor is ready to join Marion in the lead roles…a charming rogue named Bernard Granger (Depardieu).

Most of the film focuses on the play coming together…the rehearsals, the sets, the costumes and the behind-the-scenes antics, all of which play in the foreground while Nazi occupation comes across as a glimpse here or there.  It feels like a troupe of artists struggling for normalcy and trying to bring a little bit of the same to their fellow Parisiennes.

But not everything is as it appears.  The elusive Lucas Steiner?  Not quite as far as he would have us believe.  In fact, he’s been living in his theatre's basement and stealing a few amusing conjugal visits from his wife, who always has to disappear and come back with an excuse.  In fact, the sharp Steiner even figures out how to listen in on rehearsals and more or less direct the play through Cottins even though he can’t let anyone know he’s still around.

The other mystery is Granger, who likes to womanize with everyone on set except Marion, but might be leading a double life.  His strange meetings and what seem to be the result of them suggests he’s not quite so focused on acting as he is on getting the Germans the hell out of France.

All of this plays with Truffaut’s warm affection toward the creative people, and perhaps one aspect I love most about The Last Metro is that it kind of does for theatre what Day For Night did for the movie business.  It may not quite measure up to that legendary cinematic classic, but that’s hardly a disparaging remark; many, many movies have failed to live up to that benchmark.

Truffaut seemed, in my opinion, to mostly circumnavigate politics to focus on the characters and their immediate situation.  We get very few hints of elements such as the resistance, and only fleeting mentions of those French who collaborated with the Germans.  The anti-Semitism plays a part, because of Steiner’s situation, but even it gets a laugh or two as Marion chides him “My mother warned me I’d never be happy with a Jew”, while lovemaking, or Lucas reading from Nazi propaganda about how the Jews make off with their most beautiful women…Catherine Deneuve playing a shining example.

The ensemble cast is wonderful, as is Truffaut’s sense of style.  His long unbroken shots and fluid camera movements make for a more engrossing cinematic experience as opposed to constant cutting and repositioning.  Cinematographer Nestor Almendros did a remarkable job in creating a nostalgic world of rich reds and golds and bringing a deliberately stagelike quality to the way the movie looks…after all, it IS all about the stage.

This film was sadly third to last for the man who helped revitalize French cinema and usher in an entirely new vocabulary for the world of modern filmmaking.  Francois Truffaut’s passing at the age of only 52 left movie lovers with a staggering void.  Few artists really relished their art form as much as Truffaut did, and one could easily picture Lucas and Marion Steiner and even Bernard Granger saluting the legend when he left this earth.

BONUS TRIVIA:  Jean Poiret is also a noted writer who penned the original hit play La Cage Aux Folles.

Video ***

Criterion continues to impress with their Blu-ray releases, and the anamorphic transfer really preserves the colors and imagery of Nestor Almendros’ beautiful camerawork.  As mentioned, the color schemes are rich and nostalgic, and they come across with a lovely clarity.  There is some noticeable grain here and there, but certainly not bad for a nearly 30 year old film.

Audio **1/2

The uncompressed mono audio is nice…it’s mostly a dialogue-driven movie, so there’s not a lot of dynamic range required, but the occasional bits of music sound rich and full, and the overall soundtrack is quite clean.

Features ****

There are two commentary tracks, both of which are gems.  The wonderful Annette Insdorf, translator for Truffaut and an author of a book on the director, gives a warm and highly insightful offering.  The other features a combination of actor Gerard Depardieu, Truffaut biographer Serge Toubiana and historian Jean-Pierre Azema.  It’s in French, but subtitles are provided.  I was surprised to learn that Depardieu didn’t think much of Truffaut as a filmmaker and actually told him so on their first meeting…wow! 

There is a single deleted scene and some French television excerpts featuring interviews with Truffaut, Depardieu, Catherine Deneuve and Jean Poiret.  New interviews include actors Andrea Ferreol, Sabine Haudepin and Paulette Dubost, along with some of Truffaut’s camera assistants.  There is also an interview with legendary cinematographer Nestor Almendros.

The disc also includes a delightful 1958 short film “Une histoire d’eau”, which was a collaboration between Truffaut (prior to his first feature) and Jean-Luc Goddard, plus the original trailer and a booklet with a new essay by critic Armond White.

Summary:

The Last Metro radiates with Francois Truffaut’s love of filmmaking and theatrical people.  It may not be the most serious look at the German occupation of France, but it’s one of the warmest and most delightful.  Criterion has scored again with another wonderful Blu-ray release for fans of high definition presentations and classic motion pictures.

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