Some ideas on Truffaut's "The Last Metro"
One often sees the criticism of Francois Truffaut”s “Le Dernier Metro” ( “The Last Metro”) that he had turned to making films in the tradition of the films that he had scorned as a young critic in the 1950s. Of course, most of these writers are not familiar with the films that he had scorned. ( I will post a list of the films that he scorned further down.) I would say “yes” he was working in a tradition. He could almost have titled the film “Si Paris occupeé nous était conté”. Sacha Guitry was one of his heros. But he did call the film “Le Dernier Metro” and that title points to the tradition of the film and explains its style.
It is true that the early scene where Bernard tries to pick up Arlette bears some resemblance to the scene at the beginning of “Les Enfants des Paradis” in which Frederick attempts to pick up Garance. It must be remembered though that the young critics of the 50s had no ax to grind with the Prevert-Carne films of the late 30s and the first half of the 40s. Anyone who watches the clip of Godard from 1963 on the “Bande a Part” will hear him praise the Carne of “Quai des Brumes” before deprecating the Carne of “Les Tricheurs”. Even their criticism of Carne that merely photograph his screenwriters scenario, that he was more a “metteur en image” than a “metteur en scene”, had started in the mid-40s by Henri Jeanson, Carne’s one-time collaborator. But getting back to my point that scene occurring in the midst of the crowd on the Boulevard des Crime in the Carne film explains its title and theme. Carne’s film is about theater-goers, even his four theatrical protagonists all attend plays. Truffaut’s film though is not so much about the audience as it is about the theater world and hence its title “ Le Dernier Metro”.
Before I get back to my point I believe I should note here that “Le Dernier Metro” was meant to be one panel in a trilogy on the entertainment world. “La Nuit Americaine” (“Day for Night”) was of course the film panel. And “L’Agence Magique” a film about Music Hall was never made. In the late 70s Truffaut had a screenplay for this film ready to shoot and had begun pre-production but the failure of “The Green Room” caused him to alter his plans and to film “L’Amour en Fuite”.
The voice-over prologue describes an occupied Paris where night workers have to scurry to make the last metro in order to beat the curfew. What is left to our imaginations is to realize that many of these workers are theater people. Jean Marais whose real-life thrashing of the Je Suis Partout drama Alain Laubreaux provided the inspiration for one of the key scenes in the film described the last metro thusly in his autobiography “Histoires de ma Vie” (page 159)
“Le dernier métro est merveillux. Aussi bondé comme les autres. Il transporte le Tout-Paris. Tout le monde se connaît, parle du dernier concert, de ballet, de théâtre. Dehors, c’est le blackout, le chefs d’ilot, les rondes d’Allemands, les otages, si on a depassé l’heure du couvre-feu.”
“The last metro was marvelous. As packed as the others. It carried all of the theater world of Paris. Everyone knew everyone else. We spoke of the latest concert, of the ballet, of the theater. Outside, it was the blackout, the militias, German patrols, hostages if one was out past curfew.”
NOTE: “Tout-Paris” usually means “ Paris high society” but Marais in the book frequently uses in a narrower sense of “the theater world”.
In other words “Les Films de Carosse” had produced a film that represented “the last metro” as the golden coach of occupied Paris. Some quarter of a century earlier before Truffaut made “Le Dernier Metro” he with Jacques Rivette had interviewed Jean Renoir and Renoir told them that in order to do his film "Le Carrosse d'Or" (“The Golden Coach”) he had found it necessary to subordinate his style to a theatrical style. Could it be that there is one explanation of the style of the film? Question mark. So now Truffaut was returning to the style of "Le Carrosse d'Or" (“The Golden Coach”.)
Some other ideas gleaned from Nestor Almendros’ memoir of his career as a cinematographer “A Man With A Camera”. Remember the scene from the beginning of the film that I spoke about earlier, the one were Bernard accosts Arlette. I can still remember the feeling of claustrophobia that I felt the first time I saw “Le Dernier Metro”. And of course I was going to soon discover that one of the main characters in the film was hiding in a small room in the basement of his theater. Almendros speaks of using the camera to create a feeling of claustrophobia in this film. He also reveals that it was normal for Truffaut to keep his windows open. But in this film because of its theme and its time period, windows remained shut. Also, he and Truffaut wanted the look of early Agfacolor of films like “Munchhaussen” and “Die Goldene Stadt”. A look that was gentler and softer than the vivid Technicolor films of the same period. Thus the set designer were asked for ocher-colored sets and the props and costumes were chosen in subdued colors. Also they changed their film stock to Fuji because it was closer to this look they were cultivating.
As long as we are discussing Almendros I think it might be appropriate to end with a quote from his chapter on the film "La Chambre Verte" (“The Green Room”).
“As expected, “The Green Room” was not very well received. The theme of death rarely attracts crowds. This is almost an axiom in the cinema, and by producing so difficult and personal a work, risking almost certain economic failure, Truffaut showed once again that after sixteen films he was still the uncompromising artist he was as a young man.” Nestor Almendros, “A Man With A Camera” page 220.
Labels: "François Truffaut"