"The Last Metro" is nothing if not a patriotic soother. Francois Truffaut fritters away 133 minutes celebrating the plucky efforts of a Parisian theater company to go on with a seemingly dreary show, a Scandinavian weepie called "The Woman Who Disappeared," despite the harassments of the Nazi Occupation. The title refers to the curfew imposed in France during the Occupation; the last Metro ran at 11 p.m., compelling theaters, among other places of entertainment, to move up curtain times for the convenience of patrons.
Truffaut's latest movie arrives at the Key in Georgetown with impressive credentials. An immediate box-office smash in France, it went on to collect a record 10 (out of a possible 12) "Cesars," the French Film Academy's counterpart to the Oscars.Only "Kagemusha" appears to pose a threat to "The Last Metro" for the Academy Award as best foreign language film for 1980.
The scenario devised by Truffaut and Suzanne Schiffman is a pastiche of moods and plot threads abstracted from "Casablanca," "Les Enfants du Paradis," "The Diary of Anne Frank," Truffaut's own "Day for Night" and the actual theatrical history of the Occupation period. Catherine Deneuve, elegantly coiffed and gowned and sustaining a wifely facade nobler than Greer Garson in her prime, stars as a popular actress, Marion Steiner, who struggles to maintain the theater run by her director-husband Lucas (Heinz Bennent), a fugitive Jew.
Continued control of the theater is more than a professional obligation or financial imperative. Marion is also hiding Lucas in the cellar. From his hiding place Lucas is ghosting the direction of "The Woman Who Disappeared." He can hear rehearsals through a broken pipe, and he passes instructions onto an associate, Jean-Loup (Jean Poiret), a placid homosexual actor who specializes in mollifying troublesome figures of authority, notably a meddlesome anti-Semitic drama critic called Daxiat. This character, played with admirable sincerity by Jean-Louis Richard, gives the film its only hints of psychological perception and dramatic urgency.
The movie begins on a flat foot when Truffaut introduces Gerard Depardieu, a new leading man recruited to the Steiner company from the Grand Guignol, in a facetious attempt to pick up Andrea Ferreol, whose brushoff desperately lacks a payoff. Depardieu's character, called Bernard Granger, soon discovers that Ferreol's character, Arlette Guillaume, is also a member of the Steiner company -- she's the wardrobe mistress and a lesbian.
The script is so blissfully undramatic that two hours creep by before Depardieu is allowed to catch on to Ferreol's predilections and switch to Deneuve, provoking a romantic triangle which is inconsequential. The heroine is given a memorably inadequate line to explain the filmmakers' dilatory methods: "I was so attracted to you that I covered it up so no one would know." Oh.
A gallery of pleasant nonentities, the Steiner troupe is nevertheless meant to evoke patriotic satisfaction, symbolizing the theatrical wing of a Spirit of Resistance that sustained and ennobled a whole population during the ordeal of the Occupation. Glowing with self-congratulation, the characters are given a curtain call that resembles the finale of "Star Wars."
The only significant difference, of course, is that Truffaut's characters have done nothing to justify smug heroic rapture. At most the intrepid players hid their leader and defied an ink-stained wretch who was loathed anyway. From what we see of the play-within-the-movie, the hated Daxiat would be perfectly justified in writing "I saw a nondescript show with no style," but Truffaut and Schiffman are so absentminded that they have him condemning the performance right after he's been standing and cheering on opening night.
After the sobering, unflattering portraits of France under the Occupation begun by Marcel Ophuls' "The Sorrow and the Pity," it's understandable that Truffaut might have hit pay dirt by reviving the comforting myth that Resistance was a nearly universal sentiment. "The Last Metro" must have been an ego massage Whose Time Had Come, although its inspirational bombast seems unlikely to transcend its nationality.
This is a difficult bummer to shrug off. The mind behind "The Last Metro" seems cheerfully ignorant. You find yourself wondering what it was in Truffaut that ever appealed to you. It seemed to be something genuine, and now it seems lost.