FILM FEBRUARY 28, 1981
What's going to happen in film? The question recurs--and not only in this column--for assorted reasons, econommic and cultural. It's not arbitrarily a gloomy question: possibly, in the long run, we're just going to have to ask it under different aspects, toward different ends. But in a shorter long-range view, we ask it in terms of directors. Just as the question about the state of the theater usually means: "What important new playwrights are there?" so the question about film implies: "What important new directors are there?"
Perhaps the strangulating economy, the alterations in political-social continuities throughout the world, the very changes in film technology (video tape, cassettes, and home viewing, for examples) will alter our needs and expectations in ways not yet decipherable.
At the moment, however, that opening question--if it means anything more than "What immortal classic will open next week and justify my seeing it?"--centers on the careers of directors, as careers. What new directors are there about whose careers we can hope? And the hard fact, in my view, is that we're still hoping about the oldtimers, we're still hoping that Bergman or Kurosawa or Antonioni or Fellini or Bunuel or Bresson will come along with a new film to buck us up. All these men, in terms of effect, burst on the world in the 1960s. There has been no post-1960s crop to succeed them, or others of their contemporaries, at anything like their level. Abroad, the last 20 years brought forth Fassbinder and Wenders and Syberberg, Jancso, Troell, Bellocchio, Olmi, and Teshigahara, of whom the first three still kindle hope. In the US, Peckinpah and Penn, Bogdanovich, Altman, Schrader, Allen, Scorsese, and Coppola, the last two of whom still kindle hope. Only certain film journals or film scholars (teachers and doctoral candidates), desperate for subjects, would maintain that the last 20 years have produced directors, internationally, on a level with their predecessors.
In which case, a film from one of the old-timers is more than a work in itself, it is or is not inspiriting generally. The Last Metro is not. This latest fiim from an "old master," Francois Truffaut--now a ripe 48--has, in a limited sense, a resemblance to Bergman's The Serpent's Egg: it's the film about the Nazi era that he's been promising himself for years,and it's one of his weaklings.
The first shot is of a Paris street in September 1942 hung with huge swastika flags. The first movement in the film is (as it often is) a tip-off to the quality of what follows. The camera zooms in on the flags. Zooms in on them--to say "See? Get it?" The hamminess of that camera strophe is quite unlike anything I can remember in even the feeblest Truffaut films; it was a kick in the hope—for the film in front of me and for the film world around me.
The Last Metro does not get much better. The direction never quite sinks to that banality again, but neither does it reveal anything of the celebrated Truffaut style, either in surprises of perception or in lyrical movement. It shows a sharper sense of editing rhythm than the merely competent, but it is directing without notable texture or reward.
Truffaut's new indistinctiveness has affected two of his longtime collaborators. The music by Georges Delerue, who did lovely scores for many Truffaut films including Jules and Jim as well as for Godard, De Broca, and Resnais, is here coarse, whooping things up in a cheap and distracting manner when danger threatens, etc. The cinematography by Nestor Almendros, a master whose films for Truffaut include Two English Girls and The Story of Adiele H., is done with the palette of a marzipan factory--exactly the edible colors of those fake fruits and vegetables. If we hear the pat response that the Delerue and Almendros modes were deliberately chosen (as if we'd thought they were accidental), then perhaps we'llalso be told why. How do they either give the picture depth or keep it skating along like good melodrama?
A quasi-melodramatic, flimsily clever script is what Truffaut has written, with his collaborators Suzanne Schiffman and Jean-Claude Grumberg. Truffaut says they wrote it to express "our aversion to ail forms of racism and intolerance." Stanley Kramer could have said no more. There are only two "forms" in the film--Nazi forms, that is. The first is not dramatized, the proscription of homosexuality. The male and female homosexuals in the film never run the slightest risk of discovery. If you didn't know that such individuals ran a risk with the occupying government, the film would not tell you. The second js anti-Semitism, and how many of us have been waiting for Truffaut's condemnation of it? How could he have made a film about the German occupation without being against anti-Semitism? And how does he explore the subject--in thematic or experiential or any other terms--to deepen our understanding or even, minimally, to move us? This film's statements on anti-Semitism are about as daring and enlightening as the abuse of Mussolini's corpse by the Milanese mob after he was executed.
In no way does Truffaut extend our comprehension of the Occupation, not even through the specialized spectrum of the theater where most of the film takes place. Of course he was too young for adult experience of the period, but this wouldn't in itself disqualify him any more than the fact that he wasn't around in 1912 disqualified him for Jules and Jim. Some of the details in The Last Metro contradict things I've read. (For instance, the theater in the film is always crowded, yet Jean-Paul Sartre, who was writing plays then, said: "Under the Occupation people seldom went out in the evening; the theater was virtually moribund."). But details aside, empathically or imaginatively Truffaut adds nothing and, I'd say, subtracts something. He makes the sole offense of nazism its anti-Semitism. I'm not exactly forgetting the Vel d'Hiver and Dachau when I say that there was a great deal more danger to the world in Nazi Germany than in its hatred andmurder of Jews. Truffaut's view is reductive of the danger then--and ofpossible future fascist threats, (Anything not anti-Semitic is OK?)
The title refers to the last subway train at 11 pm, by which Parisians had to get home under the German curfew. Its only relevance to the story is that every theater had to plan its shows so that patrons could catch that train. The director of an off-Boulevard theater, played by Heinz Bennent, is German-Jewish and has disappeared, alleged to have fled France. His wife, Catherine Deneuve, the leading actress of the theater, takes over as manager with an old friend as director. A young actor, Gerard Depardieu, is engaged for a new play. Soon, and with complete nonsurprise, we learn that Bennent has not fled: he is hidden in the cellar of the theater, listening to rehearsals through a ventilator, offering suggestions toand through his wife who visits him nightly. The fourth prominent character is a leading critic, the editor of the strongly pro-German je suis partout, played by Jean-Louis Richard and apparently modeled on the theater critic and film historian Robert Brasillach. (If it is Brasillach, then, as he did in The Story of Adele H.. Truffaut monkeys with historical facts to suit his emotional prejudices. Brasillach did not, as Truffaut's critic does, according to a voiceover, skulk away after the Liberation to die in Spain of cancer 20 years later. He turned himself in--courageously, one must say--to join his mother and brother-in-law, defended himself calmly, was condemned and shot.)
Out of these ingredients could have been built a black comedy (romance between Depardieu and Deneuve in a grim context) or a symbolist drama (the Jewish artist gone literally underground but still inspiring the operation; the theateras mask for truth-telling before tyrants, which, in the case of Sartre's The Flies and Anouilh's Antigone, it was). But this script doesn't use either ofthose approaches or any effective one: it doesn't even fall between stools--it lacks the weight. It just sets its situation, implicitly promises development of some kind, delivers none, utilizes a few conventional narrow escapes, then ends. The finish is a replay of an earlier Truffaut device. In Day for Night the street where the films opens soon is revealed as a film set; in The Last Metro the hospital scene that closes the film turns out to be a theater set.
The film doesn't bore, it simply never grips. The chief reason for its interest is its performers Heinz Bennent, father of the child David Bennent who was in The Tin Drum, plays the hidden Jew with quietly stated substance; he has a neat lined face that speaks of much experience well understood, Gerard Depardieu acts with his usual vigor and more shading than usual, which gives him more the feeling of a man, less of a sex salesman. In rehearsals he sometimes has to do a scene two different ways; this would have been impossible for Deneuve on whom Truffaut's demands are carefully restricted. But she is so beautiful--more beautiful than she was in her 20s--and she uses her beauty so much more subtly than whatever acting talent she has that the "space" allotted to her in the film is filled. The loathsomecritic is well and genuinely performed by lean-Louis Richard, out of the knowledge that many Parisian artists and intellectuals, far from feeling conquered, welcomed the German victory as a fresh start for France. An elderly dresser is played by Paulette Dubost, whose charming face kept teasing me for recognition. A look at a reference book later and I knew why: Dubost was the flirtatious maid whomakes much of the trouble in Renoir's Rules of the Game (1939). Truffaut likes these private linkages: the ingenue of the company is Sabine Haudepin who was leanne Moreau's child in Jules and Jim(1962). And--another link--Richard was once Moreau's real-life husband.
Given the domain of the story and the validity of the cast, the clinkers in the script are especially troubling. Depardieu is seen stealing a record-player from the theater, and shortly afterward a German officer is killed by a bomb in a record-player; why does no one connect the two events? When Depardieu says he's leaving to join the Resistance (whose presence hovers on the edges of the film), why does Deneuve slap his face? After Depardieu assaults the politically powerful critic in a restauraunt for his vile anti-Semitic review of the theater's new play, why is his acting career undisturbed? Why indeed did the critic savage the play after we see him at the opening night standing and applauding? And since Bennent knows that his wife is in love with Depardieu, does our final post-Liberation view of the three of them on stage, bowing to applause, signify a menage a trois?
The mind that let all these points pass is also the mind that failed to probe the theme of the film, that went for a sort of free ride on anti-nazism and anti anti-Semitism, that was unable, despite the choice of setting, to make much use of theater resources as an enrichment of filmmaking. (Compare Bergman's The Magic Flute.) And it's the mind that settled for the look of the film and the sound of its score.
So, no help from Truffaut in the matter of hope. Maybe the new Fellini?
Stanley Kauffmann is the film critic for The New Republic.
By Stanley Kauffmann