The Last Metro: A Sequence Analysis, by Darrell Tuffs
The Last Metro was made in 1980 by the former French new wave director, François Truffaut; the film stars Catherine Deneuve and Gérard Depardieu in its main roles as Marion Steiner and Barnard Granger. The film itself tells the story of a small theatre production group during the occupation of Paris in the Second World War. Marion takes control of the theatre after her Jewish husband Lucas Steiner is forced to hide from the Nazi’s in the building’s cellar. When Marion begins to formulate a new stage play, actor Barnard is cast in its leading role; this then leads to the creation of a passionate love triangle that sees Marion romantically torn between Barnard and her husband. The sequence shown takes place during the final few moments of the film, at which point, the Nazis have left Paris and the play has been a success. During the sequence, we see multiple plot points begin to close, but we also receive something of a resolution for the film’s central love triangle conflict.
The sequence arrives just after a climatic moment of passion in the film between Marion and Barnard; at which point, Barnard prepares to leave the theatre in order to join the French resistance. Marion reunites with Barnard after an unspecified period of time as he is held within a soldier’s hospital unit. As Marion enters the hospital, a steady medium close-up shot tracks her movements as she travels past many injured soldiers and their caring nurses. This creates scale; the camera slowly reveals more and more soldiers in the background of the shot, unveiling a beaten-down and dire mood within the space. A sense of melancholy is established through depicting these soldiers as having helped save France, yet still with no sense of enjoyment or direction within the blank, clinical space of this dire hospital room. A sombre piece of music helps construct the room as a place of refuge and rest, yet adds a hint of hopelessness and bleakness to its established tone. The scene becomes filled with an ever-increasing amount of injured bodies, causing concern for Barnard’s health and assumed physical state. As Marion sees Barnard, she stops and stares, looking into space off-screen; this allows the audience to assume and fear for Barnard’s condition, has Barnard been left with substantial injuries? Is he dead? The opening few moments of the sequence builds within a single flowing shot in order to establish Marion’s growing fear and concern for Barnard, yet also communicates to the viewer that Marion and Barnard have not met since the last time we saw them on screen together.
A slow camera pan glides with Marion as she steps towards Barnard. In this moment, a repositioning of Barnard’s relationship with Marion takes place. He is no longer the charming and capable active character seen earlier in the film. Barnard is physically static within a wheelchair, reduced to an empty stare and a few softly spoken lines of romantically theatrical dialogue. This change in character is supported by a shift in cinematic tone within the scene. At the point in which Barnard is revealed, the film’s music dies down, all external sounds are extinguished, and the long tracking shot is broken up into tight, individual close-ups of both Marion and Barnard. An awareness of silence transforms the sequence, increasing its intimacy and familiarity as Marion and Barnard draw closer towards a calm moment of pure emotion.
For a moment, every other element so far built-up within the sequence becomes irrelevant as the camera fixates itself on the individual faces of the couple. Barnard reveals that he had never loved Marion, and has, over time, forgotten about her. The dialogue given by the couple holds reflections of pain and suffering, yet the lines and performances are more reflective of the acted stage performances seen earlier in the film; Marion and Barnard have transformed into their stage personas, becoming over-dramatic and metaphorical. The sequence at this point is attempting to echo previous scenes of climatic tension between Marion and Barnard’s stage characters; this is made apparent by a slowly increasing shift to theatrical and over-melancholic dialogue in the scene. However, also important to note is Barnard’s face; with dark brown bruises around his eyes, more shadows cast upon his face, and with little sense of expressive face emotion, Barnard looks and feels more like his stage persona. The film uses this scene to underline “the multiple, shifting and provisional identities of the members of the theatre troupe, for whom role-playing is not only a profession but also part of the fabric of everyday life” (Holmes, Ingram, 1998, p.195) This all adds up to create an increasing sense of artificiality within the sequence; over a few seconds, decreasing its tone of realistic authenticity, and increasing a sense of intertextuality; the scene slowly forms itself into a pastiche of previously seen stage scenes within the film.
The sequence builds to a melancholic peak, before quickly being revealed as an actual stage performance, taking place in front of a live theatre audience. The central aim of the sequence is to create a sense of misdirection by slowly heightening and amplifying its romantic tone, only to subvert audience expectation later by adding the element of a live audience. The scene is also designed to comment upon itself; the viewer of the sequence is made aware of him or herself as a spectator of on-screen performance. The reveal of the theatre audience is captured by an abruptly wide, stage point-of-view shot looking directly into the line of spectacle; this creates a sense of the film itself looking directly back onto its own spectators, the viewer. At this point, a meta-reference is created, leading the audience to acknowledge the inauthenticity of the entire film itself as a staged performance; this is supported structurally by actors then lining up in order to bow towards the camera in an act of acknowledgment by them towards us as film viewers. The scene is able to blur the line, not only between stage performance and authentic human performance, but also the one between the naturalness of film style, and the artificiality of film form.
The point of reveal in the sequence also creates a sense of temporal displacement; we are no longer situated within the hospital room in which Marion first entered, but are now found within a visual representation of that space made from cardboard and fake painted backdrops. This leads the viewer to feel somewhat displaced within the space; the previous hospital room now feels like a dream or vision. “Although Truffaut alludes to actual history (during the sequence), his goal is theatrical. The Last Metro presents the splendours and miseries of the occupation era as they might be recalled in a dream”; in this, the film is attempting to make a visual comment on the ways in which cinema can transform and disorientate audiences (White, 2009). All fictional films are a construction of fake sets and simulated character, yet, at the precise moment of total cinematic absorption on the part of the spectator, they feel as real spaces situated within our own authentic world. The sequence starts by creating a simulation of audience enchantment, before snapping out of the cinematic trance to reveal its own sense of construction. This is supported by the fact that the moving people outside the window behind Barnard are now lifeless paintings, and the entire roomful of wounded soldiers have now vanished. The sequence highlights these now missing elements as fragments of audience imagination, suggesting that the missing soldiers were only present within the scene before because we as viewers added them as a result of audience enchantment and dissolution; the film disrupts and deconstructs its own hypnotic spell throughout the sequence.
Towards the end of the sequence, Lucas is revealed as the backstage constructer of the dramatic scene that has just taken place. As the audience notice Lucas’s darkened, silhouetted figure towards the edge of the stage, they cheer and call for his presence. Lucas slowly leans his head forward, gradually peeling back the darkness that surrounds him; this is Lucas’s physical and metaphorical emersion from the grave danger of the Nazis, into the light and fame of the theatre stage. Lucas is redeemed from an outcast of society into a respected and accepted hero of culture and art. Lucas takes to centre stage with Marion and Barnard, now standing as the head figure within a Nazi-free theatre; the overarching dread and tension created by the ever-presence of Nazi influence over the theatre has now been removed and extinguished; Lucas stands in victory, almost as though the audience are cheering the end of Nazi occupation, rather than the play itself.
As the film’s three main characters stand on stage, a quietly mellowing score builds a sense of climatic resolution; individual close-ups of each character connect the three emotionally, but their positioning on the stage is left uneven, with Marion standing with Barnard, and apart from Lucas. Since the audience has now accepted Lucas socially, Marion can now be seen to support him without hiding; this leads to Marion physically shifting her position within the group to stand in the middle of Barnard and Lucas, thus completing the metaphorical love triangle that has been formulating over the film’s duration. Within the hospital room, the sequence sets up to complicate the film’s remaining plot points though masking the end of the occupation as a regretfully cold period, only to invert audience expectation via misdirection, before concluding with a physical act of completion on the part of Marion’s decision to remain torn between the men; the triangle is comfortably completed and accepted, and so, the sequence draws the film to both a symbolic and historically triumphant close.
Holmes, D, Ingram, R. (1998) Francois Truffaut, Manchester: Manchester University Press.
White, A. (2009) “Truffaut’s Changing Times: The Last Metro”, available at: https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/1044-truffaut-s-changing-times-the-last-metro (access date, 06/11/2015).