The Last Metro (Le dernier Métro) Review
Much of the following is revised and updated from my DVD review written for this site in 2009, which can be found here
1942. In occupied Paris, the theatres and cinemas are packed, but they finish early. Due to curfews, no-one can afford to miss the last Metro home. One theatre is run by Lucas Steiner (Heinz Bennent), but he has had to flee the country as a Jew. His actress wife Marion (Catherine Deneuve) runs the establishment in his stead. Bernard Granger (Gérard Depardieu) is the leading man. But what only Marion knows is that Lucas is still in Paris, in hiding...
What we see of a foreign country’s cinema is not what a native sees – and the same is most likely true of other country’s view of our cinema. François Truffaut’s The Four Hundred Blows was one of the films that kickstarted the French New Wave, which became a highly influential movement throughout the 1960s and beyond. However, if the New Wave was where the artistic action was, it was rarely big box office. That was even true of Truffaut, less experimental than Godard, Resnais or Rivette, and certainly with a warmer sensibility than most of his colleagues. However, that changed with The Last Metro, winner of ten César Awards from twelve nominations, and was shortlisted for the Best Foreign Film Oscar. (It lost to Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears. Admittedly I haven't seen that film, which was released in UK cinemas as Moscow Distrusts Tears, but that's one of many Oscar decisions likely to seem eccentric three decades later. The fact that it has never had a UK video, DVD or Blu-ray release testifies to the fact that it has largely been forgotten.) If The Last Metro was a major award-winner, only rivalled by Day for Night in Truffaut's filmography, it was also a considerable commercial success in France, the greatest in Truffaut’s career.
It’s not true – and potentially snobbish – to suggest that artistic and commercial success do not go together. They can and do – but not always. I doubt that many would now see The Last Metro as one of Truffaut’s best films. No complaint about the acting, with Catherine Deneuve and Gérard Depardieu on fine form, not forgetting a very solid supporting cast. This was Depardieu’s first film with Truffaut, and he would go on to star in the two films the director went on to make before his death. Production design and period detail is excellent, and Nestor Almendros's camerawork, dominated by ochre hues, certainly deserved the César it won. The film certainly looks wonderful.
Yet somehow, try as I might (I watched it for the third time for this Blu-ray review), The Last Metro comes over as bland and uninvolving. While I’m aware that Truffaut (born 1932) lived through the Parisian occupation, and I can’t doubt his sincerity in making this film, but it seems too soft-edged. While Truffaut could be darker at times, his approach seems inappropriate here. It’s a terrible thing to say, but this is a film that seems almost nostalgic for what must have been a fraught and terrifying time. Nestor Almendros’s warm-toned photography only adds to this impression.
If I’m being hard on this film, it’s because to me it falls short of Truffaut’s highest standards. Truffaut was a devoted admirer of Hitchcock, and perhaps some of that director’s darker sensibility was what I was missing. The film will of course still be essential viewing for Truffaut’s fans, of which there are many.
The Last Metro is one of twelve Truffaut films released on DVD and Blu-ray by Artificial Eye. It was the latter which was supplied on a checkdisc for review, and comments below and affiliate links refer to that edition. For affiliate links for the DVD, go here.
Most of Truffaut's feature films, and all nine of them photographed by Almendros, are in the ratio of 1.66:1 and this Blu-ray transfer is in that ratio. The transfer really showcases Almendros's work, which is dominated by browns and ochres, evoking the look of European Agfacolor films of the period, and also recreating the yellowish look of contemporary lighting. Grain is certainly present, but is natural and filmlike and blacks are solid. (Once again, this Blu-ray checkdisc proved to be incompatible with my PC player, so I am unable to provide a screengrab. Those above come from the MK2 DVD release of 2002.)
The soundtrack is the original mono, and is clear and well balanced. English subtitles are optional, but as usual you can only play the feature subtitles with the feature soundtrack on. If you select the commentary from the extras menu, then the subtitles available are for that soundtrack.
As is the case with all but one of Artificial Eye's Truffaut reissues, the film was originally released on DVD in France by MK2, and extras have been carried over from that edition, beginning with a short introduction by Serge Toubiana (4:10). He also moderates the commentary, which is with Gérard Depardieu and historian Jean-Pierre Azéma. Depardieu talks about his work with Truffaut on this film and beyond, and how he overcame his intial prejudices to become a dedicated collaborator. He also speaks movingly about Truffaut's final illness and death. Azéma is an authority on the period and his contributions concentrate on that, even pointing out a few mistakes in period detail.
Also on the disc are the trailer (2:35) and a scene which was not in the theatrical release but was added to the VHS release (4:46). All of these extras are in French with optional English subtitles.