There are numerous levels of masquerade to enjoy in François Truffaut’s The Last Metro (1980). Not only do we have a movie about the mounting of a play, but one in which virtually every character must deceive the others as a means of survival. This is Paris in 1942, and the Germans have moved in.
Actress Marion Steiner (Catherine Deneuve) has assumed management of the Théâtre Montmartre following the disappearance of her husband, the admired yet conspicuously Jewish director Lucas Steiner (Heinz Bennent). They rehearse a play called, aptly enough, Disappearance. It stars Marion and Bernard Granger (Gérard Depardieu), a doggedly persistent pussyhound and fresh transplant from the Grand Guignol. Just as the icy Marion maintains a secret life whose locus lies within the bowels of the Montmartre, Bernard’s amiability seems a cover for some conspiratorial activities that find him skulking in the alley. Of course the real conspiracy ’s been designed by Truffaut and co-scenarist Suzanne Schiffman, who only gradually reveal the ways in which Marion and Bernard are unwittingly aligned.
Oscar-nominated and César-showered, this was the most commercially successful, audience-friendly film of Truffaut’s late career. Yet there’s something quietly subversive about its tone. Rather than portray occupied France as a grim, claustrophobic and inherently corrupting environment, Truffaut, reflecting on his own childhood memories, paints it with unapologetic nostalgia. His attention to detail is often whimsical. A voice-over informs us that the theatres and cinemas were always full, the offer of warmth, escape and the community facilitated solidarity through spectatorship. The Nazi presence isn’t trivialized, yet neither is it dwelled on. It’s a potentially catastrophic nuisance that must be endured, and Truffaut’s Parisians, the compromised and courageous, do what they must. For all the ostensible desperation underlying The Last Metro, it’s played as elegant lark rather than grave drama.
Perhaps unsurprisingly given this approach, what makes Marion and Bernard memorable characters has everything to do with the actors and little with the material. Bernard especially feels only sketched out by the script, leaving a disproportionate share of the fleshing out in the thankfully capable, burly hands of Depardieu, whose presence, as always, is considerable. (I loved the scene where he tries to analogize his lust as being “like craving a hot croissant.”)
For me the dominant source of pleasure in The Last Metro however is simply its craftsmanship, the culmination of several talents having worked together over many years. The images, photographed by the great Néstor Almendros, are washed in a warm array of reds, oranges and browns. The quick fade-outs fall over clipped scene endings like a soft hush. There’s a wealth of sensuality generated from the mere—and oft repeated—glimpse of Deneuve’s legs as they’re caressed. And there is in this a portrait of a no-longer young but still tender marriage that’s rendered moving by a touch so light it almost has to be French.