The French Resistance is a subject that film-makers have returned to time and time again. The vast majority of these films present either romanticised versions, typified by the recent blockbuster ‘Charlotte Gray’, or glossy sitcom ‘Allo, Allo’ types. There is no danger of either with Bertrand Tavernier’s wonderful new film ‘Laissez-Passer’ (‘Safe Conduct’).
The film portrays life in German-occupied France and centres on Continental Films, a German-controlled production company founded after the Nazi occupation. Tavernier uses the company as a metaphor for French society. Should French technicians agree to work for Continental? Is it a hiding place away from the prying eyes of Gestapo agents, or is it equivalent to collaborating with the enemy?
Drawing on their real-life experiences, ‘Laissez-Passer’ is the story of two men whose lives converge and entwine. Dean Devaire (played by Jaques Gamblin) is an assistant film director who joins Continental as the best possible cover for his resistance activities. He is a man of action, rash, impulsive and daring. The other central character is Jean Aurenche (played by Denis Podalydes), a scriptwriter and poet. He uses every possible excuse to turn down any offers of work from the Germans. He is a playboy, whose resistance to the Nazi occupation is his writing.
This is a complex and multi-layered film. Most of the time people are combating hunger, cold and petty restrictions. With the exception of violent, but short-lived air raids, life is quite mundane. But at all times there is a lurking Nazi presence. The checkpoints, the missing relatives and the suspicion of fellow workmates all create an atmosphere of fear and paranoia.
Every now and then the barbarity of the Nazi regime pierces this greyness. In one scene the lead character is walking down the street deep in thought. All of a sudden a lorry passes him. Crammed into the truck are men and women wearing yellow stars. No comment is made but the horror and brutality of the Holocaust hits you in the face.
The film’s tension centres on Dean Devaire. It follows his attempts to contact the Resistance after he steals confidential files from a Gestapo office. His journey through the suburbs of Paris and the countryside shows a society ravaged by war and paints a true picture of the French Resistance. Not one united, as is so often portrayed, but one divided between those loyal to De Gaulle and those linked to the Communist Party. Tavernier even finds time to raise some of the debates that raged inside the Communist Party.
Despite the serious subject of the film there are some amusing moments. In one scene, Tavernier reverses the traditional view of the British army and portrays the intelligence service as a bunch of bumbling fools only concerned with ‘having a nice cup of tea’.
Resistance for Tavernier is not just limited to those who carry out acts of sabotage or guerrilla warfare. ‘Laissez-Passer’ shows the bravery of those organising illegal unions, and refusing to write pro-German scripts. This film eats into your soul. I’m sure that like me you will leave the cinema pondering the moral dilemmas the characters face and wondering how you would act facing such situations. Tavernier’s sympathies clearly lie with those resisting the Nazis. But he also explores the motives of those who collaborated and those who are just concerned with day to day survival.
‘Laissez-Passer’ is Bertrand Tavernier’s 20th movie and is every bit as good as his previous films–the stunning ‘It All Starts Today’ (‘Ça commence aujourd’hui’), ‘L.267’ and ‘Round Midnight’. It’s going to be a busy few months for socialists, but you really should make time to see this movie.
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A pick of the highlights