The Last Metro (1980)

Directed by Francois Truffaut

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Francois Truffaut’s The Last Metro feels like it belongs in a sub genre of nostalgic films, alongside Louis Malle’s Au Revoir Les Enfants, John Boorman’s Hope and Glory and Woody Allen’s Radio Days.  These are films tied to the moments of history in which the director was a child.  Often they orbit charged moments in history, and in the case of this film and the other three listed it’s World War II.

Granted The Last Metro doesn’t feature a child-aged leading character as a stand in for the director like the other films do.  Those are stories with characters enduring and trying to ignore the horrors going on around them.  In the case of the young characters they may not even be aware of how inflamed the situation is.

In this film we spend most of our time stuffed inside a Paris theatre during the Nazi occupation.  We follow an ensemble of actors, directors and stage hands in the lead up to a play.  The theatre’s famous director is believed to have fled France but in reality resides in secret in the theatre’s basement, cared for by his wife and the play’s leading lady, Marion (Catherine Deneuve).  The threat of her husband being found out looms over the entire story, but it’s one of those story points which unfolds inevitably and eventually.  Before then the threat of exposure mostly acts as set dressing for the melodrama.

There is plenty of room within the story for characters to lust after each other, to worry about reviews, to fret about line readings and casting calls.  The world inside the theatre, it’s made clear, goes on as normal, as if nothing were amiss outside.

It suggests a bubble within, that shields performer and spectator from the world outside.  To be so focused on the performance seems in some way to defy the practical, dangerous realities of the external world.  In this way art is life-giving or life-protecting.  It’s a survival asset.

It’s a fascinating dynamic, but I found the story itself rather inconsequential.  As an idea it’s compelling but in actuality it’s just sort of okay.

In some ways it’s quite disappointing because there seems to be so much story to tell and which is told in quick narration at the beginning and end of the film.  This voice over explains to us the situation in Paris and how people rely on the theatre not just for escapist entertainment but so too for literal warmth.  In the winter and with no heating they flock to theatre houses to survive.  In the epilogue we’re told that when the theatre lost power the stage hand had the ingenious idea to set up car headlights to illuminate the stage.

These are all fascinating details, and the characters are engaging in their own right, but the story within the theatre just felt much less interesting than the story outside.

The film then is a celebration of the theatre and of art, as a communal, healing experience.  It’s a wonderful idea, and perhaps I’m not giving the film enough credit, but something about it felt flat.

Up Next: Close-Up (1990), Long Day’s Journey Into Night (2018), Dazed and Confused (1993)

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