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The Last Metro
Savant Blu-ray Review

The Last Metro
Criterion 462
1980 / Color / 1:66 widescreen / 131 133 min. / Le dernier metró / Street Date March 24, 2009 / 39.95
Starring Catherine Deneuve, Gérard Depardieu, Heinz Bennent, Jean Poiret, Andréa Ferréol, Paulette Dubost, Jean-Louis Richard, Sabine Haudepin.
Néstor Almendros
Production Design Jean-Pierre Kohut-Svelko
Film Editor Martine Barraqué
Original Music Georges Delerue
Written by François Truffaut, Suzanne Schiffman, Jean-Claude Grumberg
Produced and Directed by François Truffaut

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

One of the best and certainly the most popular of François Truffaut's later films, The Last Metro is an absorbing backstage drama set in a theater in Paris during the German Occupation. Like his earlier Day for Night (La nuit Américaine), The Last Metro follows a show-biz troupe working under trying conditions, in this case, the oppressive restrictions posed by the collaborationist authorities. Criterion is releasing the beautiful color production in simultaneous DVD and Blu-ray editions.

Beautiful Catherine Deneuve is perfectly cast as Marion Steiner, a famous film actress trying to stage a play at the Montmartre Theater. Marion's Jewish husband Lucas (Heinz Bennent), the theater's impresario and director, has reportedly fled the country to avoid being deported to a concentration camp. With her business manager Jean-Loup Cottins (Jean Poiret) helping to cut through Nazi-imposed red tape, Marion hires the promising actor Bernard Granger (Gérard Depardieu) and hopes that her play won't be shut down on a political whim. The film's title refers to the 11 PM Parisian subway run. All shows must finish early to allow citizens to get home before the midnight curfew.

Truffaut and Suzanne Schiffman's story stacks layers of intrigue atop the already tense historical situation. The collaborationist government encourages theater life but only under strict controls. All plays must be approved by the devious Daxiat, a pro-Nazi journalist (Jean-Louis Richard). Daxiat tells Marion that he admires her husband and hopes that he'll return to Paris -- but his radio rants insist that the arts be purged of all "Jewishness". Marion despises the man but must play his game. Meanwhile, as Gestapo agents lurk about, someone in the Montmartre theater troupe may be involved in the underground resistance. In the middle is Marion, who is hiding some secrets of her own.

The story also gets deep into the sex lives of the theater people. Accomplished lady killer Bernard doesn't understand why he can't score with Arlette, the show's designer (Andréa Ferréol). As it turns out Arlette is more attracted to an ambitious actress, Nadine (Sabine Haudepin). Even the oldest member of the company, Germaine (Paulette Dubost of The Rules of the Game, 1939) keeps a "second man" on the side. And although Bernard doesn't realize it, Marion has a secret crush on him.

The Last Metro captures the strange spirit of life under the occupation. Director Truffaut purposely rejects the standard notion of a Paris divided between German oppressors and French freedom fighters. The reality was less clear-cut, especially in moral terms. For instance, French collaborators rounded up Parisian Jews for deportation, doing the Nazis' work for them. When Marion must visit a German staff office, the high-ranking Germans seem to be spending all their time with beautiful Frenchwomen. For normal citizens, the main problem is getting enough to eat. With good food extremely scarce, Marion buys from a black marketeer.

Many decisions at the Montmartre Theater carry potential life-and-death ramifications. Marion hires a Jewish seamstress, a teenager who could be arrested at any time; the girl wears a broad scarf to hide the Star of David sewn to her coat. Jean-Loup must deal with Daxiat directly, a task that brings him to the attention of the underground resistance. The rebels send him their version of a death threat, a toy coffin containing a miniature noose. Bernard foolishly picks a fight with Daxiat in a restaurant, creating a public scandal that could place the entire theater in jeopardy.

Behind all this is the play-within-a-play, a drama about a "woman disappeared" that indirectly connects with Marion's personal secret. Truffaut shows us snippets of rehearsals and performances, recreating the Parisian theater of the era in detail. French and German playgoers flock to see the movie star Marion Steiner and are enraptured by her undimmed beauty. Marion's tension is more than simple stage fright. She has reason to be afraid when Gestapo agents pay a backstage visit, posing as building inspectors.

For once Catherine Deneuve's somewhat icy reserve makes her ideal for a role; Marion Steiner has plenty to hide, even from her closest associates. Depardieu's actor lumbers through the show as a charming roughneck, forever chasing women but too intimidated by Mme Steiner to realize that she's waiting for him to approach her. Actor Heinz Bennent (The Serpent's Egg) plays a key behind-the-scenes role, quietly inspiring much of the film's backstage drama.

The Last Metro also functions as a suspense thriller. To avoid a serious spoiler, I've purposely avoided a key plot issue, one that even brief descriptions of the film often give away. The movie has an emotional charge similar to Casablanca and is one of the better backstage dramas ever filmed. It won most every French prize available, as well as a nomination for Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.

Criterion's Blu-ray of The Last Metro really brings François Truffaut's film to life. An earlier DVD did a poor job translating Néstor Almendros' dark images but the added resolution and clarity of HD reproduces every nuance of his careful lighting. In one scene Marion carries an oil lamp through the darkened theater. Although we know that the set must have been illuminated to register an image, it truly feels as if the lamp is the only light source.

Criterion producer Curtis Tsui licenses many prime source materials for use as extras. Older French television shows provide interviews with Truffaut and his actors Deneuve, Depardieu and Jean Poiret. Néstor Almendros (who passed away in 1992) appears in a lengthy interview piece to praise Truffaut's directing style. New interviews feature actors Andréa Ferréol, Sabine Haudepin and Paulette Dubost -- who is still going strong, way into her 90's. Assistant director Alain Tasma joins two camera assistants to remember more details about their director.

This edition returns The Last Metro to its original theatrical cut. Later TV showings added a couple minutes that Truffaut decided to take out before the premiere, leaving a minor but touching story tangent unfinished. The missing film fragment is viewable here as a deleted scene.

One commentary track presents François Truffaut biographer Annette Insdorf, and the other combines actor Gérard Depardieu with an historian and a second Truffaut expert. As a special extra, we're given a flawless encoding of a Une histoire d'eau, an amusing 1958 short subject co-directed by Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard. It's a sketchy comedy about a woman who finds romance while trying to cross a flooded French valley. The cut-and-paste soundtrack immediately reveals the hand of Godard. The film's relaxed attitude toward lovemaking -- the sweethearts neck while stranded in a marsh -- feels more like Truffaut's doing!

An original French trailer is also included. Criterion's 2-Disc DVD version contains an identical complement of extras.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Last Metro Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Commentary by Annette Insdorf, Commentary by Gérard Depardieu, Jean-Pierre Azéma, Serge Toubiana; deleted scene, French television interview excerpts, new interviews with actors and crewpeople, interview with Nestor Almendros, 1958 film Un histoire d'eau by Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, Trailer.
Packaging: Keep case (DVD). card and plastic folder in card sleeve (Blu-ray)
Reviewed: March 14, 2009

Republished by arrangement with Film.com

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2009 Glenn Erickson

See more exclusive reviews on the Savant Main Page.
Reviews on the Savant main site have additional credits information and are often updated and annotated with reader input and graphics. Also, don't forget the 2009 Savant Wish List. T'was Ever Thus.

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