Rightly or wrongly, I always think of François Truffaut’s wartime melodrama, The Last Metro as his attempt to do for theatre what he did for film in Day for Night, that is, to create a valentine for a medium he loves through the interactions of a set of idiosyncratic characters. If that was indeed his intention, the film fails, but it succeeds in other ways.
Set during the German occupation of Paris, the story balances the efforts of a theatrical troupe led by Marion Steiner (Catherine Deneuve) to produce an obscure period melodrama acceptable to the authorities, with the underground activities of the play’s male lead, Bernard Granger (Gérard Depardieu) while interweaving both with the daily efforts just to get by. Deneuve’s husband, Lucas Steiner (Heinz Bennent) the Jewish former owner and manager of their theater, has supposedly escaped to Latin America. In reality, however, he is hidden in the bowels of the theater. As the Germans and their French collaborators tighten their grip on the city, the question is whether Steiner will be discovered.
Truffaut initially made his reputation with loose, open scripts often shot on location. Metro is tightly constructed, nearly as theatrical as the play-within-the-film and almost entirely studio-bound. Its “Paris” bears more resemblance to a wood and plaster Hollywood sound stage creation than to the real city, even if occasional location exteriors pepper the imagery. (In what feels like a joke, the only Eiffel Tower in the film is a model of one on a table top.) The script is constructed for maximum suspense, not verisimilitude, and certainly not for a serious examination of life in occupied France. As a result, Metro is a glossy entertainment, more polished than expressive.
In Day for Night, the loosely organized story hinges on quite believably human characters, affectionately observed by a man who knows the people and the situations inside out. In Metro, on the other hand, the characters are engaging enough to keep our interest, but clearly stock figures necessary to keep the melodramatic engine chugging along. As soon as any feeling more complex than suspense is required, however, such as the tension/attraction between Deneuve and Depardieu, the emotions are more displayed than felt, trumped up to produce drama when there isn’t any.
Nonetheless, with The Last Metro, Truffaut finally achieved the edge of the seat suspense associated with his adored master, Alfred Hitchcock. The results do not especially look like a Hitchcock film, but that is another way of saying that only by expressing in his own idiom could Truffaut achieve equivalent effects. (His direct imitations were a little lame.) There is still a bitter irony to that achievement, because the careful impersonality and stock situations, the lack of any emotional response other than suspense in The Last Metro also equal Hitchcock for superficiality. As a result, The Last Metro is a conventional success in every sense of the word from a man capable of much more.