Francois Truffaut's The Last Metro is set in the occupied Paris, France of 1942. The film tells the story of Lucas Steiner (Heinz Bennett), a Jewish theater owner who everyone believes to have left the country since the Nazis took over, leaving the theater to be run by his wife, Marion (Catherine Deneuve), an actress of stage and screen. In order to bring in some new business, Marion decides to stage a new play to star herself and an up and coming young actor named Bernard Granger (Gerard Depardieu). Of course, as Marian and Bernard work together, she begins to fall for him, while all the while Lucas is actually hiding in the basement of the building.
Truffaut somehow manages to take a story that, on paper at least, sounds overly melodramatic and turn it into something magnificent. Set during what had to have been an incredibly tense and emotional period in French history, The Last Metro manages to work as a sincerely moving and touching film without ever feeling heavy handed or overdone. While the story, on the surface level at least, is little more than a tale of a simple love triangle, the constant reminders of the Nazi occupation by way of the black outs, the curfew, the persecution of the Jews, the buying of food on the black market, and the very real and physical presence of German troops gives the film a much more somber and reflective tone leaving you wondering how much of it was based on Truffaut's own experiences as a boy growing up during the occupation.
Part of what makes the film so interesting is how the script affords the characters some legitimate complexities, fleshing them out and giving them some very real personality. We see them dealing with various conflicts, both internally and externally, trying to live their lives as best they can without winding up on the wrong side of the Germans. This leads to instances of fairly fierce French patriotism but, as is so often the case during war time, it also leads to instances of opportunism when Jean Poirot's character, director Jean-Loup Cottins, offers to sell the theater to a Nazi sympathizer in order to keep it from going under. While most films show those who oppose an occupying force as brave, bold and infallibly heroic, here we're given a group of characters who aren't so one dimensional and who have to deal with the reality that surrounds them without completely risking their lives. It presents an interesting and different take on the typical war film and in many ways one which is much easier to relate to given that it really is about a group of theater people simply trying to 'be theater people' under the German oppression. It's almost as if the characters need this superficiality to act as a reprieve from the horrors that continue to compound themselves just outside of their small, bourgeoisie world. As interesting as the characters are, it would all be for naught if they weren't portrayed properly and thankfully the cast are more than up to the task at hand. Depardieu, a young man here, is very strong in his part as is the more stoic and stern Bennett. The supporting cast are all perfectly fine and serve to fill things out very nicely. The real star of the show, however, is the beautiful and talented Catherine Deneuve who is absolutely perfect in the role, making you wonder if Truffaut didn't have her in mind for the part from the very beginning. She's exactly the right age and has exactly the right sort of mature screen presence that this part requires and she absolutely makes this role her own and the movie is a million times better for it.
On top of the interesting characters, the film is also a visual treat. Shot by cinematographer Nestor Alemendros the theater were so much of the movie plays out becomes a character unto itself, at times epic and beautiful while other times tight and claustrophobic. The camera tells the story quite effectively and it's interesting to note a lot of the small details that pop up in the film - notice that the windows are almost never open? On top of that, the art direction and the color schemes used to help flesh out the look of the picture are definitely evocative of the era in which the movie is set, adding a further level of class and elegance to the film's appearance. As the film moves back and forth between romance, tension, comedy and drama, so too does the camera work reflect those tonal shifts.
While the film moves at a deliberate (some might argue slow) pace, the performances are so good, the story so engrossing and the picture so consistently interesting to look at that it hardly matters. Once the plot starts to take off the film is one that sucks you into a world as appropriately stagey as the one its characters are creating on their stage. It's a fascinating picture, and it holds up well as one of Truffaut's better later era films.
The Last Metro looks great in this 1080p MPEG-4 AVC encoded 1.66.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. The colors look stunning, with no bleeding, while the black levels stay strong and deep. There's a little bit of grain here and there but that's not at all a bad thing while print damage is pretty much non-existent. Skin tones look lifelike and natural while detail in the foreground and the background of the picture remains impressive throughout the film. There aren't any obvious problems with mpeg compression artifacts or edge enhancement nor is there any heavy shimmering. All in all, the picture quality is great and this is another Blu-ray triumph that Criterion can add to their rapidly growing list. This is a beautifully authored transfer of some excellent source material - fans will definitely be pleased.
The only audio option on this disc is a French language uncompressed Mono soundtrack with optional subtitles provided in English only. As far as older Mono tracks go, this one is tops. The dialogue is crystal clear and there are no problems with hiss or distortion or with fluctuations in the audio levels. The score sounds quite nice and the dialogue is always sharp and easy to follow while the subtitles are clean, clear, easy to read and free of any obvious typographical errors.
The massive array of supplemental material included on this release starts off with a commentary track from Truffaut biographer and collaborator, Annette Insdorf. This is quite a scholarly discussion of the film, its history and its director and it does a very nice job of putting this picture into a historical context and in comparing it and relating it to Truffaut's other films. Insdorf obviously knows her stuff and her insight into this picture and its importance is quite welcome. A second commentary features actor Gerard Depardieu, film historian Jean-Pierre Azema and Truffaut biographer Serge Troubiana. This track is a bit more active and it offers a bit more insight into what it was like working on the picture and working with Truffaut thanks to Depardieu's participation. Azema essentially serves as a moderator here and he keeps Troubiana and Depardieu active and engaging throughout, making this quite an interesting examination and reminiscence of the movie.
Up next are a bunch of featurettes, starting with a collection of clips from French television wherein Truffaut, Depardieu, Deneuve and Jean Poiret are interviewed about the making of the film. The actors each discuss their characters and their roles while Truffaut gives his thoughts on the picture as a whole. From there we move on to some newly recorded video interviews with actors Andrea Ferreol, Sabine Haudepin, and Paulette Dubost as well as with second batch of interviews with assistant director Alain Tasma and camera assistants Florent Bazin and Tessa Racine. Each participant discusses their role in the making of the picture and shares some memories of Truffaut while Tasma, Bazin and Racine also cover working with cinematographer Nestor Alemendros who gets his due in an interesting and separate vintage interview that covers the films he made with Truffaut. These interviews cover quite a bit of ground and do a nice job of filling in some of the blanks left by the commentary tracks, particularly in regards to the film's visual style and look.
Rounding out the extra features are a single deleted scene, a 1958 black and white short film that Truffaut made with Godard entitled Une Histoire D'Eau, the film's original theatrical trailer, animated menus and chapter stops. Inside the packaging is a full color insert booklet featuring a chapter listing, a cast and credits list, and an essay on the film by Armond White.
Another superb Blu-ray offering from The Criterion Collection, The Last Metro looks and sounds excellent in high definition and this release contains a wealth of interesting and wholly appropriate supplemental material to add to the experience. Highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.