In Nazi-occupied France, Jewish theatre director Lucas Steiner (Heinz Bennent) has apparently fled the country to South America, but is in fact living in the cellar of his theatre, with only his wife Marion (Catherine Deneuve) knowing of the situation. The theatre keeps running, with Marion as the lead actress in the last play Lucas wrote before exile. Lucas listens to the play rehearsals during the day and gives Marion notes in the evening, which she passes on to the new director Jean-Loup Cottins (Jean Poiret) the next day. They have a rising star lead actor in Bernard Granger (Gerard Depardieu), who in turn has a roving eye on all the women in the company, including the costume designer (Andréa Ferréol) and a younger actress (Sabine Haudepin). The film follows the play’s production from casting through rehearsals into opening night and beyond, tracking the lives of the players and the impact of the Second World War.
The Last Metro was nominated for me to watch by Pete Conway of Man I Love Films and the Rambling Ramblers Movie Podcast, mainly because he was annoyed that I didn’t like Francois Truffaut’s Jules et Jim. Given my history with French directors active during the New Wave (I’m really not a fan of Jean-Luc Godard, whose Breathless was adapted from a story written by Truffaut) I didn’t expect a great deal from this, but I tried to keep as open a mind as possible which, for me, is not all that possible at all. Thus some way in I was thinking along the track of “Well obviously I don’t like this film, what are the many, many reasons why?” until I found that no, this film is actually pretty good, and my prejudicial walls crumbled.
I think it’s because of the subject matter, amongst other things. I have an affinity for war films, WWII especially, and also I enjoy films that take us behind the scenes of storytelling. Obviously I prefer films about the behind-the-scenes of the movies, but theatre is the next best thing, so it’ll do when movie magic isn’t available. I enjoyed seeing the tweaking and twisting of how the play was told in order for it to be the most effective possible, from the line delivery to re-staging of key scenes, it was all fascinating. The performances were all great too, particularly Depardieu and Deneuve, but then of course they are. Having the director living in secret in the basement was a nice touch that I’d not seen before, and whilst it played out as expected, it was still a delight to watch.
I also appreciated the smaller touches of life in these conditions, from the rampant crime on the streets to black market ham purchases, air raids, power outages, actors being shunned for working in Nazi films, stocking shortages and the general propaganda against Jewish people extending all the way to the newspaper crosswords. Some elements were established but didn’t lead anywhere, such as the young Jewish girl who must conceal the yellow Star of David affixed to her clothing if she stays out late to see the play. When she sees the opening performance it’s clear in the excitement that the scarf she was covering the star with has fallen down, and there are many Nazi officers present but nothing happens, which I suppose is due to the depressing turn the film would have taken had we seen what would have taken place had she been caught, I just found it odd for these elements to be set up and not paid off.
Above all else this was just an interesting film to watch. The performances are great, the era is fascinating and everything is gorgeously shot and designed. This being one of Truffaut’s later films I imagine it’s an exception to his earlier style (which admittedly I have only seen in Jules et Jim), but if anything I’ve learned not to just a film purely by its director.
Choose Film 8/10