The Last Metro
Directed by Francois Truffaut
Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1 anamorphic
Running Time: 131 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 1.0 French
MSRP: $ 39.95
Release Date: March 24, 2009
Review Date: March 17, 2009
Francois Truffaut’s The Last Metro is a nostalgic but unsentimentalized look back at the German occupation of Paris in 1942, a time when the biggest enemy of the French people were other French people loyal to the German cause of anti-Semitism and ready to turn in their friends, neighbors, or even relatives if it meant keeping the German occupation forces off their backs. Truffaut’s film takes that general set of historical circumstances and weaves through it an engrossing tale of theater folk doing all they can to survive those trying, tension-filled times. It’s a lovely, exquisite piece of filmmaking, made all the more memorable by a host of expressive, ingratiating performances.
The Jewish director of the Montmartre Theatre Lucas Steiner (Heinz Bennent) has gone into hiding in the cellar of the Paris theatre he had been running prior to the Nazi invasion. His wife, film and stage star Marion Steiner (Catherine Deneuve), has taken over management of the theater which is rehearsing a Norwegian play which has been approved as acceptable by the German censors. The play is being helmed by the de facto director Jean-Loup Cottins (Jean Poiret), but Steiner is eavesdropping on rehearsals and sending daily notes to the director through his wife who’s also taking a leading role. Into this family of theater professionals comes a popular new actor Bernard Granger (Gerard Depardieu) who has an eye for the ladies but who’s also growing increasingly interested in the French Resistance.
Truffaut’s script (co-written with Suzanne Schiffman) seems to live and breathe theater. The professionals portrayed have a passion for their craft, and despite the Nazi threat, the air raids, the rampant crime in the streets with people desperately trying to survive, the show must go on, and it does. Through the sensitive writing, we get to know a host of the theater’s personnel: the wardrobe and set designer, the stage manager, the director as well as several of the principal actors in the troupe, and, of course, the real director in hiding doing all he can to prevent the walls of the theater’s cellar from closing in on him while his wife slowly drifts away from him emotionally. We also get to see the ugly side of the times: the French traitors who are openly hostile to the Jews and to those who sympathize with them. Truffaut uses the character of the newspaper editor-critic Daxiat (Jean-Louis Richard) for this purpose, a sneering, unctuous man without an ounce of kindness in his soul, a true casualty of the war. Truffaut’s writing and direction remains solid and on-point until the somewhat unfortunate end where he speeds ahead to the end of the war to show us what became of some of the main characters. Though obviously going for some positive closure, he may have reached a bit too self-consciously for audience satisfaction. The film might have been more emotionally gripping had it ended ten minutes sooner with a more open-ended, ambiguous conclusion.
Catherine Deneuve has never been more radiant as both a performer and a woman as she is in this movie. Stunningly beautiful and with emotions held in check to match the mask she must wear around the German sympathizers she loathes, Deneuve reaches a career high point with this picture. Second-billed Gerard Depardieu appears in his usual lothario role early on but has some very effective dramatic scenes later in the movie, capped with a wonderfully angry exchange with the repulsive Daxiat (the excellent Jean-Louis Richard) when an unfairly scathing review appears after the critic gave the play a standing ovation in the theater. One feels the unease of trapped helplessness that Heinz Bennent portrays as the director-in-hiding. Andréa Ferréol, Paulette Dubost, and Jean Poiret add weight and human interest as members of the company struggling to keep their heads above the fray.
The film’s 1.66:1 theatrical aspect ratio is delivered with anamorphic enhancement for widescreen televisions. The DVD captures the brilliantly warm, burnished colors and lighting of expert cinematographer Nestor Almendros in all of their rich reds, browns, and beiges though occasionally the richest reds get a bit noisy. Flesh tones are nicely conveyed, and sharpness for the most part is excellent. Blacks can be surprisingly deep. The white subtitles are easy to read. The film has been divided into 31 chapters.
The Dolby Digital 1.0 track has some audible hiss and light crackle during the quieter scenes occasionally, but otherwise, it’s a typical mix of its era and suits the visuals just fine with a solid audio performance. As the film is mostly talk, the mono audio track works well.
The disc offers two audio commentaries. The first and the better of the two is by Truffaut biographer Annette Insdorf who speaks thoughtfully and well about the film, the performers, and her knowledge of Truffaut’s life and career. The second track offers actor Gerard Depardieu, historian Jean-Pierre Azéma, and Truffaut biographer Serge Toubiana speaking in French (with English subtitles) about the film’s accuracy in portraying France during the Occupation. It’s a start and stop affair, however, and not as involving as Insdorf’s talk.
The majority of the film's bonus features are contained on a second disc.
One deleted scene is included on the disc, parts of which were contained in the finished film. It runs 5 minutes in anamorphic widescreen.
Two 1980 television interviews feature director Truffaut. In the first he is joined by stars Catherine Deneuve and Gerard Depardieu for a 10 ¾-minute conversation in 4:3. In the second, the director and co-star Jean Poiret speak for 6 ½ minutes, also in 4:3.
“Performing The Last Metro” is a 15-minute compilation of video interviews with Andréa Ferréol, Paulette Dubost, Sabine Haudepin, and assistant director Alain Tasma discussing the working methods of the famous director. It’s in anamorphic widescreen.
“Visualizing The Last Metro” finds camera assistants Florent Bazin and Tessa Racine discussing the art director, the lighting, and the cinematography at play in the film in an anamorphic widescreen interview that runs 9 ½ minutes. They also reminisce about Oscar-winning cinematographer Nestor Almendros.
“Working with Truffaut: Nestor Almendros” is a fascinating interview with the highly respected cinematographer who made nine films with the legendary director. Filmed in 1986, this featurette is in 4:3 and runs 28 minutes.
Une Historie d’eau is the delightful 1958 short film Truffaut co-directed with Jean-Luc Godard. In it, a winsome French girl and her handsome companion traverse the flooded French countryside attempting to get to Paris. This 12 ½-minute short is presented in 4:3.
The film’s original theatrical trailer runs 2 ¼ minutes and is presented in nonanamorphic letterbox.
The enclosed 14-page booklet contains some attractive black and white and color stills, a cast and crew list, and a celebratory essay on the movie by film critic Armond White.
One of his most involving films, Francois Truffaut’s The Last Metro finally arrives in a Criterion release worthy of the film’s greatness with a very good picture, adequate sound, and a raft of bonus features. Highly recommended!