DURING THE great schism in French cinema many years ago, when the New Wave reared its vicious little head, Francois Truffaut emerged on the side of the angels. A sentimentalist and romantic, Truffaut seemed to lose any grittiness he once had. The tough but compassionate voyeur lost the harsh edges, the very qualities much of the filmmaking world was exploring with a vengeance The Truffaut of The 400 Blows gave way to the Truffaut of The Man Who Loved Women and Day for Night. He treated even his most repellent characters with extraordinary affection. When Trauffaut took a role in Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters, it was, fittingly enough, that of the starry-eyed scientist who looked to the sky with an unbridled, childlike innocence. These hyper-intelligent jellyfish aliens glided out of the Mother Ship, and there was the benevolent Truffaut, signalling good will and smiling his beatific smile. Jean Luc Godard sneered and said the man wasn't even a director. Truffaut, the gallant one, smiled demurely and said how much he liked Mr. Godard.
But while Godard and his aging enfant terrible cohorts continued their explorations of the bleak and the beleagured, Truffaut continued to see the world placidly, some would say naively, not as an elaborate inhuman maze, but as a series of small victories and small defeats. At this year's New York Film Festival, Godard gave the world his Every Man for Himself, and not very many wanted it. Truffaut gave them The Last Metro, complete with Cartherine Deneuve and Gerald Depardieu, and everyone sighed. In France The Last Metro has been lavishly garnished with awards and is a huge financial success. It is proof, some would like to think, that nice guys can finish first. It is unfortunately, though, also proof that the line between the compassionate and the superficial is very thin indeed.
The title of the film is an allusion to Parisian life during the time of the Nazi occupation, the time in which Truffaut's story is set. This was a time of dramatic contradiction in Paris, for despite the air raid warnings and the sudden imposition of the Nazi superstructure, some normal life continued to exist. It was, paradoxically, a time of artistic flowering in France--many theaters flourished, and Les Enfants du Paradis was being filmed. Camus and the like were writing for the newspapers and carrying on the Resistance. There was an intellectual and social defiance which the Nazis could never conquer, and it continued despite the imposition of censorship and curfew--even though if one missed the last metro, the veneer of normal life would vanish and one could be arrested at random on the street.
The characters who people Truffaut's film all attempt to carry on in the theater within this muffled and surreal atmosphere. The Theatre Montmartre, despite its trouble with censors and with its owner underground because he is a Jew, is rehearsing a production of an insipid Norwegian melodrama entitled "The Disappearance." The play has to be inspidid to please the censors and a certain Daxiat, a collaborating theater critic who speaks the language of civility and art but whose reviews are rabid diatribes, poison pen letters under the guise of apolitical culture. As the troupe carries on rehearsals of the play, the pattern of occupation life emerges. The owner, who has ostensibly fled the country, is actually hiding in the basement of the theater, listening to the rehearsals through a hole in the heating duct. The leading man in the melodrama is a part-time resistance fighter. The owner's wife heads the theater in his absence, dividing her time between the state and black market "passers" who promise to smuggle her husband out of the country.
AS THE STORY unfolds, the film takes on a claustrophobic air--most of the scenes are filmed indoors in overly decorated building which hold only a veneer of their former elegance. The few times Truffaut takes his camera outdoors, it is always at night, and the camera prowls suspiciously to discordant music The set for the play-within-the-film has no sense of depth: the scenes pass, stilted and flat. Something is happening outside all of this, and yet it is never explicitly shown. One only senses a dread, one smells horror like one can smell open water in complete darkness.
And yet, against this background, Truffaut does no more than create a melodrama himself. Essentially, the film follows characters one ostensibly knows about--the resistance fighters, the underground populace--but Truffaut refuses to examine their motivation. Despite remarkable performances by Catherine Deneuve as Mrs. Steiner, and Gerald Depardieu as the leading man turned resistance fighter, Truffaut refuses to follow any one character beyond the confines of their theater. And in the end, when Truffaut resorts to a cliched surprise ending, he undoes any unnerving elements that have gone before. The film is forever on the verge of going deeper, of pulling something coherent out of this situation, but after more than two hours it reneges. The occupation is over, the plays go on, and Truffaut's characters continue forever, just out of reach.
Throughout the film, there is a deliberate refusal to judge any of the characters in political terms. Truffaut is perhaps only interested in showing the real lives which existed in spite of the occupation. But this distant stance, this refusal to do more than hint at the dread, eventually condemns the film to the realm of the superficial. It is the equivalent of a period piece, a nice love story in an interesting time, and one leaves the film with nothing more than the memory of some beautiful visual scenes--something which seems superficial in the face of the subject matter. Some situations are, quite simply, horrible, but Truffaut, the benevolent, refuses to admit it. And somewhere, the deliberate denial of the horrors, or at least the fears of the occupation, makes Truffaut seem, at best, a romantic, or at worst, naive.