One of the great films about theater, François Truffaut's The Last Metro is a loving account of the literal and figurative romance of the stage, even under the most trying of social circumstances. Set in occupied Paris in 1942, Truffaut's film magically evokes the theater without ever sacrificing the cinematic. The long take that opens the film may whet our appetite for the theatrical, but the film goes on to convert the theatrical value of verisimilitude into the language of cinema. The detailed recreation of wartime Paris and its stages, represented by the fictional Théâtre Montmartre, derive from extensive research by Truffaut and co-screenwriter Suzanne Schiffman, as well as Truffaut's lasting impressions of a childhood spent partly during the Occupation (a third screenwriter, Jean-Claude Grumberg, also contributed to the film's smart dialogue).
Catherine Deneuve has one of her best roles in Marion Steiner, the actress wife of the Théâtre Montmartre's celebrated and ostensibly absent owner-director Lucas Steiner (Heinz Bennent). A Jew in hiding, Lucas has taken up residence in the theater's cellar as his wife runs operations above and secretly conveys his specifications to the director and actors who are working from the notes he "left behind." The play in rehearsals is "The Vanished Woman," and it stars Marion and rising talent Bernard Granger (Gérard Depardieu), late of the Grand Guignol. A man who makes no secret of his womanizing, Granger actively pursues every woman but Marion, whose withdrawal he senses without quite understanding it. As the cast and crew work through the usual struggles of mounting a play, Truffaut quietly and efficiently educates his viewers to the theatrical process: we see in passing, for instance, the construction of a set model and Truffaut steadily shows the evolution from unadorned rehearsals (complete with haggling over delivery and motivation) to full costume, makeup and stagecraft.
This virtue is only a sideline of The Last Metro, however. The focus is on the role of theatre as a refuge, not only for the man installed in its basement, but for the cast and crew investing all of their waking hours to their artistic pursuit as much because of as in spite of wartime distractions. The indiginities of the Occupation only serve to fuel the fervor of these craftspeople, whose survival isn't a matter of idealized heroism to Truffaut, but rather a fact of life. The compromises of collaboration are ever at the door of the Montmartre, which must suffer the ambivalent attentions of powerful drama critic and Nazi sympathizer Daxiat (Jean-Pierre Richard) while also making ends meet at any cost.
Truffaut resists conventional character building, choosing instead to honor the natural rhythms of experience with episodic revelations of character. An early example is the terrific scene in which young actress Nadine (Sabine Haudepin) cathartically defends burning her career candle at both ends. Though set in a type of building not known for its closed doors, all of the theater people are closeted in some way: Marion with her emotional containment, Bernard hiding his role in the Resistance, two key players in the company keeping their homosexuality under wraps to the public if not their colleagues. Truffaut's film was met with no such restraint: it won a whopping ten Césars, as well as an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film.
Truffaut's swathes himself in simpatico contributions from his own collaborators, especially composer Georges Delerue and cinematographer Nestor Almendros, who gives the exteriors the grey of a city under the cloud of war and the interiors an inviting golden glow (the theater also blooms with rich, passionate red). Though so much is frustrated by the containment of the occupation, true expression fights to emerge through art and romantic union. Without ever coming close to the swoony melodrama of "The Vanished Woman," Truffaut slowly turns up the heat under a simmering romantic triangle comprised of the Steiners and Granger. As Daxiat says, "Everything is political," even the 11pm curfew that makes "the last metro" of utmost importance to Parisians daily trying to make it home from occupation.
Criterion's new hi-def transfer of The Last Metro is a beaut on Blu-ray. The film's effusion of red gives the transfer no difficulty whatsoever; in fact, all of the color is true, the film grain natural, and the detail and depth outstanding for a film of this vintage. I couldn't spot any digital artifacts, and the image is matched by a faithful uncompressed linear rendition of the original monaural soundtrack.
The DVD extras are mirrored on this Blu-ray release, beginning with a commentary by Annette Insdorf, author of François Truffaut, and a commentary by actor Gérard Depardieu, historian Jean-Pierre Azéma, and Truffaut biographer Serge Toubiana. The former offers a fine critical analysis of the film as well as a warm and detailed remembrance of Truffaut by someone who knew him; the latter finds Toubiana coaxing fascinating reminiscences from Depardieu and engaging academic points from Azéma.
Also included is a fine "Deleted Scene" (4:59, HD)—sometimes recut into the film—that poignantly establishes Valentin's urgency to attach Marion to "Angels of Mercy."
A suite of several Interviews, new and old, lends yet more context to the feature. A 1980 interview from French TV show Les nouveaux rendez-vous (10:47, HD) brings Truffaut, Depardieu, and Catherine Deneuve to one couch. Truffaut explains how he based the script on actors' memoirs and newspaper accounts, and Depardieu and Deneuve explain the merits of their respective roles. A 1980 interview from French TV show Passez donc me voir (6:29, HD) sits Truffaut and actor Jean Poiret at a roundtable with an interviewer.
The newly produced "Performing The Last Metro" (14:56, HD) includes interesting chats with actors Andréa Ferréol, Paulette Dubost, and Sabine Haudepin, and actor/second assistant director Alain Tasma. Likewise, "Visualizing The Last Metro" (9:34, HD) features camera assistants Florent Bazin and Tessa Racine sharing their memories of working with cinematographer Nestor Almendros.
"Working with Truffaut: Nestor Almendros" (28:06, HD) is a 1986 interview with the cinematographer, fully reconstructed (with never-before-seen footage) for the Criterion Collection.
Another lovely gem in the set is the Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut's 1958 short film "Une histoire d'eau" (12:14, HD), and the "Theatrical Trailer" (2:45, HD) for The Last Metro rounds out the disc.
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