Le Dernier Metro
Le Dernier Metro is a film directed by Francois Truffaut in 1980 and is set under the German Occupation of France after the armistice was signed in June 1940. The story centres on a Jewish owned theatre company and its struggle to survive during the occupation years in face of anti-Semitism, food shortages and censorship.
Truffaut’s film has been criticised for it’s failure to address the difficult socio-political issues during a particularly contentious period of French history, but instead Truffaut was seen as exploiting the mythology of La France resistante in delivering a feel-good film that depicts the Occupation period as ‘comforting and comfortable’. Thus, the question over whether it is a valid film about resistance and the Occupation, or whether it is an over-indulgent and nai?? ve view of this period is often raised.
Truffaut was a child during the Occupation and there is an undoubtedly personal, nostalgic feel to Le Dernier Metro. From the beginning, we hear a nostalgic song by Lucienne Delyle about peacetime and love that creates a retro charm about the war period. The film lighting is warm and golden and pleasure has been taken in the fashion and the look of the period that Truffaut is trying to evoke. This can be seen in the elegant costumes that Catharine Deneuve wears, the material shortages, the menacingly black Gestapo cars and the overall darkness of the film which all help to create the texture of the everyday.
Although the film is clearly located in the Occupation and has a precise historical framework, it is nevertheless a personal film and critics objected to its avoidance of the brutal realities of the arrest and torturing by the Gestapo and the Holocaust. In fact, most of the film takes place in the theatre and focuses on the Montmartre’s survival and the relationships among the theatre group. One critic even accused Truffaut of “reducing the massive nature of the holocaust to the private level of a domestic tragedy” (Affron and Rubinstein 1985 as discussed in Holmes and Ingram 1998).
Another argument that can be levelled against Le Dernier Metro is that it appears to be too comfortably schematised. The theatre group can be seen as the ‘good’ guys who are pro-resistance and characteristic of the French population, whilst the pro Fascist journalist Daxiat is the collaborator representing French extreme right movements. Critics consider this moral polarisation as too facile and convenient, particularly as the French were starting to come to terms with the realities of the Occupation and films
And documentaries such as Le Chagrin et La Pitie(1971) were serving to puncture popular mythology and subsequently helped to reinforce such criticisms of Le Dernier Metro. However it would be unfair to view Le Dernier Metro as simply a love story which only uses the Occupation period as its setting. It can be argued that there is a more morally demanding side to the film. A central feature of the film is the conflict between Daxiat’s essentialist view of people and the theatre group’s fluid, provisional identities (Holmes and Ingram 1998).
Daxiat represents the totalitarian order, which believes in an essentializing definition of people Like the Nazis, Daxiat is deeply anti-Semitic and it is this aspect of the repressive Nazi system that is explored by Truffaut. From the racist cross words in the French newspapers, to the anti-Semitic radio broadcasts by Daxiat, this anti-Semitism is located in the French but never mechanically condemned in the film. Daxiat also believes that along with the Jews, homosexuality is a corrupting force that is contaminating the theatre.
His description of the homosexual director Jean-loup Cottins’ new production as ‘effeminate,’ further highlights the essentialist view typical of the Vichy regime and Nazism. In contrast to this, the members of the theatre group possess shifting identities as part of their everyday lives. For example, not only do we role-playing in the theatre play, but also outside of it. Early on, we see Bernard play ‘Le role de l’homme de la rue’ in trying to chat up Arlette. Marion also plays the role of the loyal, abandoned wife, while concealing her husband and allowing people to believe that he has fled the country.
Lucas Steiner himself meditates about the problematic nature of ‘to be’. We see him try on a false nose in order to try and feel ‘Jewish’, for this ‘Jewishness’ must be performed so as to satisfy the anti-Semitic Daxiat. All of this serves to highlight the fragile line between performance and identity that is very much in contrast to Daxiat’s (and the Vichy government’s) pursuit of essentialized gender politics (Holmes and Ingram 1998). The love story as well can be viewed as a rejection of conservative Vichy ideology.
During the Occupation years, Petain and the Vichy government had replaced the famous republican Liberte, egalite, fraternite, with the more nationalist Travail, Famille, Patrie. This policy championed very traditional views on marriage and the importance of a woman’s role at home and as mother. Therefore, the film’s successful love triangle can be seen as a refusal to accept the idea of absolutism and exclusivity of love that was central to Nazi and the Vichy government’s sexual ideology.
Furthermore, the theatre group can be seen as an unorthodox ‘family’ that has come together through shared interests in theatre activities, as opposed to Petain’s state glorified patriarchal family defined by blood ties. While the actual theatre in the film provides a confined space of dramatic community, it is also perhaps an image of Occupied France, which, like the theatre, was a threatened fragile space at the time. It is also important to note the moral ambiguity of the supposedly ‘good’ theatre group.
They are undoubtedly a likeable bunch of people, yet Nadine is willing to try and win over Daxiat if it means more career opportunities and Marion understands that she cannot employ Jewish actors at the theatre. So, in terms of collaboration with the Nazis, overt, ideological fuelled collaboration is condemned, but there has to be a moral compromise. The ending of Le Dernier Metro is a particularly triumphant and pleasurable one as the three main strands of the film all converge.
Initially we are reminded that there were more sad than happy endings to stories of the occupation, for it seems that the love between Bernard and Marion was not meant to last. However we then find out it is actually a play we are watching and in fact, Lucas has been saved, the theatre has survived through the Occupation and the three main characters are continuing their love triangle in what is an unabashedly utopian ending.
To conclude, there is a good deal of truth in the assertion that Truffaut presents a ‘soft’, if somewhat ‘comfortable’ view of the Occupation period. He presents a more nostalgic, romanticised view of life in Paris under the Occupation and avoids many of the difficult political and moral questions of the time; Nazi ideology is not really explored, the holocaust is never directly mentioned and the French collaboration with the Nazis is simplified.
However Le Dernier Metro does depict passive resistance through culture and the battle between the definitive views of Totalitarianism and the more liberal, provisional types of community represented by the theatre group. Instead of offering the viewer any definite political or social commentary, which he makes no pretence of doing, Truffaut chooses rather to explore themes such as identity, love, the nature of desire and the nature of patriarchal authority and he does so with skill.
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