Fifty years ago, François Truffaut brought The 400 Blows to Cannes and jump-started the French New Wave as a worldwide revolution. Almost 20 years after that, he made his last successful film, 10-time César Award-winner The Last Metro.
1980’s Metro was born out of Truffaut’s desire to make a film about occupied Paris, where he grew up and came of age, fitting neatly with his desire “to show a theater backstage, evoke the atmosphere of the German occupation and give Catherine Deneuve the role of a responsible woman.”
The film was made by a serious-minded Truffaut; far removed from (though in the natural progression of) the man who made Shoot the Piano Player. Part Diary of Anne Frank, part Phantom of the Opera, Truffaut brings us behind the curtain as a theater troupe learns a new play and breaks in a new actor, Bernard Granger (Gérard Depardieu).
The troupe’s leader is director Lucas Steiner (Heinz Bennent), a Jew in hiding beneath the grand stage. He listens to the daily rehearsals through an air duct and gives his gentile wife, Marion (Deneuve), notes every night when she sneaks down to visit him.
Daxiat (Jean-Louis Richard), a vocal, Jew-hating theater critic who is in league with the Vichy government, is a specter of evil looming outside, trying to seep its way through the doors. He skulks around the theater, offering support, trying to get closer to Marion. But she is getting closer to Bernard right under Lucas’ nose (or, rather, above it).
Making the vile critic the film’s villain is a curious play on Truffaut’s own film-critic past; he was known for his brutality, lashing out at those he deemed unworthy in the pages of Cahiers du cinéma. He backed away from that part of his life later in his career, printing only positive articles in his book The Films in My Life, but it is as much a part of his legacy as Jules and Jim, and the world of film (and criticism) would be a vastly different place without that oppositional voice.
His early death was a great loss, but The Last Metro is a great film, and he was probably OK with that tradeoff.