The Last Metro (Le dernier metro)

Director: François Truffaut
Screenplay: François Truffaut & Suzanne Schiffman (dialogue by François Truffaut & Suzanne Schiffman and Jean-Claude Grumberg)
Stars: Catherine Deneuve (Marion Steiner), Gérard Depardieu (Bernard Granger), Jean Poiret (Jean-Loup Cottins), Andréa Ferréol (Arlette Guillaume), Paulette Dubost (Germaine Fabre), Jean-Louis Richard (Daxiat), Maurice Risch (Raymond Boursier), Sabine Haudepin (Nadine Marsac), Heinz Bennent (Lucas Steiner)
MPAA Rating: PG
Year of Release: 1980
Country: France
The Last Metro Criterion Collection DVD
The Last MetroThe Last Metro (Le dernier metro) takes place during the German Occupation of France in the early 1940s, a time that director François Truffaut remembered from his days as a 10-year-old schoolboy, and he poured his memories into the film, shaping its broad, romantic thriller parameters into something more intimate and personal. Like his critically acclaimed debut The 400 Blows (1959), there are many autobiographical touches, except that, rather than constituting the film’s core, they adorn the edges. One of the best examples is a throwaway moment early in the film when a German soldier playfully tousles a young boy’s hair, after which the boy’s mother insists that he go home and wash it, an event that actually happened to Truffaut (except it was his grandmother who was so insistent on washing off the Nazi residue).

The Last Metro also bears out Truffaut’s love of art and its capacity to survive even during the most tumultuous of times. The story takes place in 1942 and revolves primarily around the people working inside the Théâtre Montmatre, a celebrated Parisian theater that, like all theaters during the Occupation, is in constant danger of being shut down by the collaborationist Vichy government. The theater is run by its star Marion Steiner (Catherine Deneuve), the wife of the theater’s Jewish director, Lucas Steiner (Heinz Bennent), who is thought to have left the country but is actually hiding in the theater’s basement. The theater has just gotten an injection of new blood in the form of Bernard Granger (Gérard Depardieu), a dedicated, rising actor who made his name at the Grand Guignol and has been hired to play the lead role in a Scandinavian play titled Disappearance that Lucas selected right before his own disappearing act. Unbeknownst to the rest of the troupe, Bernard is also a member of the Resistance who plans various acts of sabotage when he’s not rehearsing.

The screenplay by Truffaut and Suzanne Schiffman (who collaborated on eight films, beginning with 1973’s Day for Night) create tension in the film along several interrelated lines. First is the fate of the theater. It is in constant jeopardy due to widespread censorship, which is embodied by the thoroughly repulsive, anti-Semitic theater critic Daxiat (Jean-Louis Richard), whose bad notices carry much more than just critical weight. For Truffaut, who got his start as a film critic with a reputation for being uncompromising and at times vicious, Daxiat is a truly soulless creature because he has twisted the critic’s responsibility of elevating art into a noxious combination of political power-mongering and overt racism. This connects to a second line of tension in the film, which is the question of whether Lucas will be discovered in the basement. Marion is the only person who knows of his whereabouts, and when she visits him it is both an attempt to sustain their marriage and an opportunity for him to give her notes on the direction of the play, whose rehearsals he can hear through the ductwork. Thus, like an amusing twist on The Phantom of the Opera, Lucas continues his artistic endeavors in secret, using Marion as his mouthpiece.

There is also romantic tension in the film, as Marion and Bernard develop an obvious attraction that, instead of drawing them together, repels them like opposing ends of a magnet. Both Deneuve and Depardieu were major stars of the French cinema, and Truffaut uses their luminescent screen presence to great effect, drawing out their attraction to each other like a piano wire that finally snaps when Bernard goes off on Daxiat’s treatment of Marion in one of his reviews and therefore puts the entire theater in danger. Deneuve and Depardieu make an intriguing screen couple simple because they are so diametrically opposed, she being the classic French beauty--cool and refined--while he is an atypical French leading man, with his heavy body, unconventional looks, and roughish demeanor (early in the film Marion compares his character to Jean Gabin in La bête humaine, which allows Truffaut to self-consciously connect his leading man to one of the French cinema’s screen icons and also to reference Jean Renoir, one of his favorite directors).

While there are many characters in the film whose interweaving narratives drive its momentum, the real hero is the Théâtre Montmatre itself, which becomes a symbol of the power of art and the nature of resistance, both of which Truffaut romanticizes almost to a fault. We can see this in legendary cinematographer Nestor Almendros’s use of color, which is primarily shades of amber and brown that are offset by the striking use of red inside the theater, suggesting the passion of artistic triumph just inside its otherwise meager façade. This romanticism is perhaps why the film was the most commercially successful of Truffaut’s career and why it went home with 10 César Awards, the French equivalent to the Oscars. There is no doubt that The Last Metro is a crowd-pleasing movie that celebrates its characters’ fortitude during a grim time that many viewers at the time could still easily remember, and for that reason many critics who had celebrated Truffaut’s earlier, more aesthetically and thematically radical films like Jules and Jim (1962) dismissed it. And, while it is not one of Truffaut’s strongest works, it is nevertheless a striking and engaging film, one that reflects the great filmmaker’s love of artistic creation and its role in maintaining humanity.

The Last Metro Criterion Collection 2-Disc DVD Set
The Last Metro is also available from Criterion on Blu-Ray.
Aspect Ratio1.66:1
AudioFrench Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural
Subtitles English
  • Audio commentary by Annette Insdorf, author of François Truffaut
  • Audio commentary by actor Gérard Depardieu, historian Jean-Pierre Azéma, and Truffat biographer Serge Toubiana
  • Deleted scene
  • 1980 French television excerpts of interviews with Truffaut, and actors Catherine Deneuve, Depardieu, and Jean Poiret
  • “Performing The Last Metro” featurette
  • “Visualizing The Last Metro” featurette
  • 1986 video interview with cinematographer Nestor Almendros
  • Une histoire d’eau, Truffaut’s 1958 short film co-directed by Jean-Luc Godard
  • Theatrical trailer
  • Essay by Armond White
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateMarch 24, 2009

    However you may feel about The Last Metro in relation to Truffaut’s other films, there is no doubt that it is one of his most visually beautiful, thanks to the cinematography by Nestor Almendros. Criterion’s new high-definition transfer, which was taken from a 35mm interpositive struck from the original negative and digitally restored, is quite gorgeous. The transfer does a nice job of rendering the film’s slightly soft, burnished look of muted colors that adds to its sense of the historic past. The reds of the theater’s interior (and Catherine Deneuve’s lips) are strikingly presented, and the film’s darker sequences maintain good shadow detail and a film-like appearance without becoming muddy. (Unfortunately, I did not receive a Blu-Ray version to review, but I can only imagine that it looks even better in 1080p.) The monaural soundtrack, transferred at 24-bit from a 35mm magnetic track and digitally restored, is nice and clean with good fidelity and no ambient hiss.
    The first disc of this two-disc set features two excellent audio commentaries. The first is by film scholar by Annette Insdorf, who wrote the critical study François Truffaut and also worked as Truffaut’s personal translator when he came to the U.S. in the late 1970s and early ’80s. The second commentary, which is entirely in French, is by actor Gérard Depardieu and historian Jean-Pierre Azéma, who are moderated by Truffaut biographer Serge Toubiana. Both commentaries are excellent and well worth listening to. Insdorf provides critical analysis of the film and connects it with Truffaut’s life, while the latter commentary is a mixture of intriguing anecdotes about the production (from Depardieu) and historical commentary (by Azéma).

    The second disc opens with a 4-minute deleted scene that Truffaut took out just before the film’s release to reduce the running time, but reinserted for video in 1982 (for some reason, the disc I watched had no subtitle option for the scene). Along with a theatrical trailer, the rest of the disc is filled with interviews of those who worked on the film, both archival and new. From the archives we have excerpts from a 1980 interview with Truffaut and actors Catherine Deneuve and Gerard Depardieu on Les nouveaux rendez-vous (11 min.) and a 1980 interview with Truffaut and actor Jean Poiret on Passez donc me voir (6 min. 30 sec.). “Performing The Last Metro” (15 min.) is a retrospective featurette comprised of new video interviews with actors Andréa Ferréol, Sabine Haudepin, and second assistant director Alain Tasma. “Visualizing The Last Metro” (9 min. 30 sec.) looks back at the film’s production in terms of cinematography and set design and features new video interviews with camera assistants Florent Bazin and Tessa Racine, who discuss their work with Nestor Almendros. Almendros himself discusses his work with Truffaut in a rare 1986 interview that was culled from Rainer Ganser’s documentary Arbeiten mit François Truffaut by Truffaut expert Robert Fischer (28 min.). Finally, the disc includes a real treat in Une histoire d’eau, a 12-minute 1958 short film co-directed by Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard.

    Copyright ©2009 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (3)

    James Kendrick

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