Review: “The Last Metro” (5/5):
François Truffaut’s The Last Metro is about a theatre in Nazi-occupied France during World War II. Lucas Steiner, a Jewish man who manages the theatre, goes into hiding while he prepares to sneak out of the country and reach Spain. In the meantime, he entrusts his wife, Marion, to manage the theatre in his absence as well as present a new play to a public eager to escape the harsh realities of war.
Even in seclusion, Lucas manages to lend his assistance to the play. He is so passionate to have his show go off without a hitch that he concocts a means to hear the performances and audience reaction by utilizing a hole in the wall. Sometimes it is difficult to tell whether he is more concerned for his life, or for the final product of the play he is helping develop in secret.
Through this film we are introduced to a cast of characters, including an actor named Bernard who is also secretly working for the resistance and begins to develop feelings for Marion while acting alongside her. There is also an obsessive actress who will take any role offered her to increase her chances of making it to the top, and a costume designer that Bernard tries to flirt with before it is revealed that she is a lesbian.
Of course things don’t go according to plan. Lucas must abandon his escape attempt when Germany takes over the free portion of France. The rest of the film’s story focuses on two very different, seemingly incompatible realities: that of art, and that of the war.
Marion finds herself slapped down in the middle of these two distinct realities to the point where she ends up with a love in each: her husband (Lucas) and her co-star (Bernard).
That Metro is about a theatre should not come as a surprise. Truffaut often seemed to inject the ‘magic’ of cinema into his works (esp. The 400 Blows and Day for Night), and his decision to have this film center around a play theatre only continues to demonstrate his passion of the performing arts. He also does a great job conveying the mindset of an artist who wants to make an impact no matter what the consequences are.
The film also emphasizes the role played by theatres, whether they be movie or play, during the second world war as a place of refuge for citizens to escape the terrors of day-to-day life. On the other hand, that same theatre which can briefly free people from their harsh reality can also magnify it – as was the case with Lucas.
This is one of a couple paradoxes presented throughout the film. There is also a German inspector/authority of the theatre who acknowledges that he is hated by everyone in the theatre, as well as an emphasis on how hearing can be both a blessing (as when Lucas listens to the play) and a curse (when Lucas hears the hate-speech on the radio). The German inspector even calls himself a ‘paradox’, as if he was being used by Truffaut to hammer home the message that war-time is a time of conflicting emotions and twisted logic.
There is also the possibility that the theatre was entirely consistent in its use, and the way in which it protected Lucas from the outside world was not that dissimilar to how it protected the audience for however brief amount of time. It even protected those who worked on the play, such as Bernard who temporarily gives up his acting in favor of joining the resistance. This happens after the gestapo officers’ prodded around for Lucas. Here it almost appears to be a wake-up call for Bernard that the theatre could not remain a sanctuary from the outside world forever; that the harsh realities of the outside world would find their way inside no matter what he or anybody else did to prevent it.
Regardless, whether the theatre is paradoxical or consistent in its use as a sanctuary is something that is worthy of discussion, and that by itself should make any serious film viewer interested in seeing this movie to decide for themselves.
During the film, as you start becoming invested in the characters and the world that is established, you get the feeling of looming danger that is bred through years of films depicting the holocaust/Jewish persecution. Because of this, I was pleasantly surprise that Truffaut decided to concluded everything in an optimistic manner without seeming unrealistic. The Last Metro provides an ending that in other genres would be cliched, yet for this one not only works, but sets it apart.
Of course the film is beautifully shot. Then again, what else can be expected from the combined efforts of Truffaut and cinematographer Néstor Almendros. There are lots of inviting reds contrasting with the grimy, greenish cellar in which Lucas stays. Only near his bed are the walls red, as if that is the sole place he finds any sort of solace.
It is all of this in summation that makes Truffaut’s The Last Metro a rare treat – a film that tackles a serious subject matter with sincerity while at the same time avoiding the pitfalls of being morose. It is also surprisingly entertaining. There is nothing better than an expertly-crafted artsy film that still manages to be fun to watch.