As Paris suffers under Nazi occupation in 1941 rakish actor Bernard Granger (Gérard Depardieu) is chosen to play the male lead in a production at a struggling theatre run by lead actress Marion Steiner (Catherine Deneuve) whose Jewish husband, director Lucas Steiner (Heinz Bennent) has supposedly fled the country. Under close scrutiny from Gestapo agents and supporters of the Nazi cause, the theatrical troupe bravely soldier on with the show. Bernard grows increasingly attracted to the courageous and beautiful Marion. She falls equally in love with him but chooses not to act on her feelings so as not to reveal a great secret. For hiding in the basement of theatre is her husband, Lucas.
François Truffaut grew up during the Nazi occupation of Paris and had long sought to make a film about this dark period. In fact Truffaut's one regret about his semi-autobiographical masterpiece The 400 Blows (1959) was having to set the film in contemporary times rather than recreating the era in which he came of age. Prior to Le Dernier Metro (The Last Metro) most French films dealing with the war focused on the heroism of the French Resistance, categorizing people at that time as either defiant fighters or despicable collaborators. Yet in Truffaut's recollection people were neither heroic nor villainous, merely muddling through troubled times as best as they could which is what he sought to reflect with this film. The Last Metro became the biggest box office success of Truffaut's career, winning ten César awards (including best picture, best director and awards for the outstanding leads), which suggests the film proved something of a national exorcism for the French.
The title Truffaut chose for the film alludes to a particularly ominous aspect of French life under the Nazi Occupation: anyone that missed the last train home and was found on the streets after curfew faced being arrested and deported. These were the days of food shortages, anti-Semitic propaganda, abduction and murder. Dark times indeed reflected in Truffaut's decision to stage the action entirely at night, bathed in the magnificently moody chiaroscuro conjured by his favourite cinematographer Néstor Almenderos. The only light both literally and figuratively comes from the theatre, a symbol of art transcending hardship to provide the audience with a cathartic emotional release. Truffaut confines much of the story to the theatre itself, creating a sense of claustrophobia and oppression alleviated by the warmth, vigour and wit of the characters.
For the actors and stage hands the theatre is much more than a mere building or even the platform from which they perform. It is a nurturing force that reaches out an umbilical cord to sustain them, almost literally in the case of Lucas. When he first emerges from his hiding place he insists on smelling the stage. Truffaut intended The Last Metro to form the middle part of a trilogy exploring the performing arts, prefigured by the Oscar-winning Day for Night (1973) which of course dealt with the movies, and due to be followed by L'Agence Magic a film about vaudeville sadly curtailed by his premature death in 1984.
Through the compellingly enigmatic Marion, Truffaut explores the theme of duality as a means of survival. Every character here has two faces, a public persona and their private feelings. Marion projects this aura of being firmly in control, dispassionate and certain in her beliefs yet is inwardly conflicted, passionate and frightened. Similarly Bernard wants everyone to regard him as an affable skirt-chasing buffoon when he is actually a committed resistance fighter with strong principles. For Truffaut the French people living under the Nazis are like players on the stage, acting out roles in order to get through their daily terror, unwilling or perhaps put more kindly, unable to express their true feelings for fear of deadly consequences. Some aspects of his thesis prove problematic as the film's staunchly apolitical stance flirts with indifference but there is a moral core. The inclusion of odious theatre critic Daxiat (Jean-Louis Richard, a regular screenwriting partner of Truffaut's!), loosely based on notorious anti-Semitic journalist Alain Laubreaux, allows Truffaut the chance to lambast those who pervert the arts for their own evil ends. Daxiat uses Fascism to further his career in the arts even as he uses the arts to espouse Fascist ideals. His sub-plot culminates in a rousing scene recreating a famous encounter between Laubreaux and legendary French actor Jean Marais, as in this instance an outraged Bernard grabs the creep by the scruff of the neck and demands an apology. In fact the film is littered with references to theatre and the cinema with the character of puckish director Jean-Loup Cottins (Jean Poiret) inspired by playwright and actor Sacha Guitry, whom Truffaut greatly admired, and the Steiner's story part-inspired by the real-life experiences of Folies Bergêre dancer Margaret Leibovici and her composer husband Marcel.
If Deneuve's Marion embodies the soul of the theatre and by proxy the soul of France and Lucas Steiner is its intellectual head, then Depardieu's robust, vigorous Bernard is perhaps its conscience. The film proved both a star-making turn for Depardieu as well as cementing Deneuve as a cinematic icon. Their potent chemistry ensured they were re-teamed several times. After a relatively sprightly first two thirds the final act grows increasingly tense as Truffaut looks to his old mentor Alfred Hitchcock and cranks up the suspense. However, the tricksy romantic climax is pure Truffaut, an playful Pirandellian conceit although one is left wondering exactly how the Bernard-Marion love story turns out.