The title of François Truffaut’s 1980 film The Last Metro comes from the importance of catching the final train of the night for Parisians living under a Nazi-imposed curfew during World War II. While it’s set in a theater where finishing a performance on time takes on a new urgency, Paris’ public transportation doesn’t otherwise factor directly into the plot. In fact, Truffaut limits the action almost entirely to the theater, the block of Montmarte outside its doors, and a few nearby locations. But it’s still the best possible title for the film, connecting directly to the constant state of anxiety of life during wartime under an oppressive regime. The city kept a superficial normality, but one constantly punctuated by the reminder that the enemy had arrived, the neighbors might be collaborators, and survival might demand unthinkable compromises from everyone.
In these dreadful circumstances, theaters and cinemas continued to draw crowds, even though the precarious times made it questionable whether a venue could stay afloat from month to month. In The Last Metro, Truffaut plunges into the workings of one such theater, home to the acclaimed productions of a Jewish artistic director (Heinz Bennent) who, if anyone asks, has fled the country, leaving his wife (Catherine Deneuve) in charge. In fact, he now leads a furtive existence in the theater’s cellar, his presence known only to Deneuve, who goes to great lengths not to draw any unwanted attention their way. Truffaut introduces her coldly swallowing her principles and rejecting a Jewish actor; it’s no joke, the fix they’re in. Gérard Depardieu plays a newcomer to the troupe, a talented leading man who quickly realizes he’s a bit of an outsider to the company’s family dynamics, with its years of accumulated allegiances and secrets. Then again, Depardieu has some secrets of his own.
With 1973’s Day For Night—a film whose light heart belied its understanding of the complicated dynamics and easily bruised egos behind creativity—Truffaut had already made one of the best films ever about the drama of making drama. Here, he finds some of the same warmth in the chilliest of settings. Against the constant threat of peril, Deneuve’s crew struggles to find the delicate alchemy needed to please a crowd in desperate need of pleasure—be it mere escape or a deeper understanding of the way the world has changed. Truffaut makes the extent of the danger (and Deneuve and Bennent’s defiance) clear, but he never overplays it. The barrage of anti-Semitic messages and a nightclub singer’s performance of a song about falling in love with a beautiful German soldier underscore the seeping threat more emphatically than a troop of stormtroopers could. Standing in opposition to that threat, Truffaut places artistry, compassion, and commitment. Humanity was always his weapon of choice.
Key features: Scholar and Truffaut translator Annette Insdorf supplies a painstaking, chirpy commentary. A second track, in French, pairs Depardieu with some historians. Also included: A deleted scene, a vintage interview with the film’s remarkable cinematographer Nestor Almendros, and new chats with some of the cast. Best of all: The 1958 short “A Story Of Water,” a puckish romp co-directed by Jean-Luc Godard.