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Wednesday, May 28, 2003

Paying tribute to courage in crisis


Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Director: Bertrand Tavernier
Running time: 170 minutes
Language: French
Currently showing

"Laissez-Passer (Safe Conduct)" is director Bertrand Tavernier's epic love letter to film and filmmakers. Spanning almost three hours and boasting 139 speaking parts, "Laissez-Passer" is also a real-life slice of French cinematic history -- the tale of what happened to the industry during the Nazi Occupation. Under the German-controlled film company Continental, it continued to churn out films, many of them highly escapist and entertaining (but none, Tavernier notes, were anti-Semitic), because Continental's main objective was to foster the illusion that life was normal. This, even as screenwriters were being arrested for "problematic scenes" and lines were being censored daily.

News photo
Jacques Gamblin in "Laissez-Passer"

Tavernier, who was in Tokyo last month promoting the movie, says: "I was interested in how filmmakers behaved during that era . . . what went on in their minds, how everyone coped or collaborated with the Nazis. I wanted to know how they chose to express themselves."

Tavernier tells the story from the perspectives of two very different men. Director Jean Devaivre (played by Jacques Gamblin) put up with his German bosses while secretly working for the Resistance. On the other hand, screenwriter Jean Aurenche (Deni Podalydes) refused to work alongside the Nazis and never showed up in the studio, though he didn't go so far as to take any outright political risks. Devaivre was a solid family man with high moral principles, but he kept those principles hidden under a veneer of quiet submission. Aurenche was a compulsive womanizer and passionate writer. He lived out of a suitcase stuffed with papers, worked in cafes and slept in a different bed every night.

Tavernier knew both these men personally as well as some other prominent members of Continental -- including Pierre Bost (Christophe Odent) and Maurice Tourneur (Philippe Morier-Genoud), both of whom helped to shape and define French cinema during the '40s and '50s before the onset of Nouvelle Vague (characterized by street locations, hand-held cameras, loose improvised scripts and other devices made famous by Jean-Luc Godard and others).

News photo
Director Bertrand Tavernier

Says the 62-year-old Tavernier: "In France, many feel that French cinema only became adventurous after Nouvelle Vague. I just didn't feel that was true. Filmmaking under German auspices, in a time of war, plagued by a shortage of supplies and manpower . . . to me, this was real adventure. How did people behave and what did they think? I wanted to know."

The answer can be boiled down to this: They did the best they could. However, this most common of truisms attains new meaning as we watch the filmmakers -- from directors and actors to negative cutters in the editing room -- toil on, burying personal or political feelings in the movies they made. A wonderfully ebullient but disciplined work, "Laissez-Passer" avoids the familiar hallmarks of movies set in wartime -- sentimentality, brutality, orchestrated emotions. Even the soundtrack is far from flamboyant.

"The purpose was not to define good and evil, or to create war heroes," explains Tavernier. "The purpose was to re-enact a certain era in the history of French cinema, to re-create a certain world. This is often the starting point for me when telling a story. I become very interested in a topic, and there is an urge to see it unfold before my eyes. And then I want to be convinced that it really happened."

Indeed, Tavernier's works are often re-enactments: "Round Midnight" (1986), for example, cast real-life jazz musicians Dexter Gordon and Herbie Hancock to depict the world of Blue Note in Paris. "L'Appat (The Bait)," in 1995, re-created a news story about three teenagers who robbed and murdered successful middle-aged men. "I love hearing and looking at stories," smiles the veteran director. "I suppose this is why I became a filmmaker -- Paying tribute to courage in the face of crisisthere aren't enough stories out there and I have to generate my own supply."

"Laissez-Passer" is his most ambitious undertaking. "A project of this scope is more like a marriage than anything else. It just calls for a very deep level of love and commitment. Also, once it gets underway, you can't just step out of it."

It took Tavernier more than five years to do the research and co-write the script, another year to get cast and crew together, then a whole year of filming. What excited and intrigued Tavernier was the movie-within-the-movie aspect that enabled him to feel as if he was skipping back and forth from Continental studios in 1942 to his own studio set in 2002.

"In the end, the distinctions got fainter," says Tavernier.

There's an immediacy to the scenes that lends it a documentary feel, but there's no mistaking the intricate, crafted elegance of top-notch filmmaking. "I want to tell the truth, but I don't see why art shouldn't interfere," is Tavernier's way of summing it up.

Ultimately, Tavernier believes in films as a method of historical cross-examination. "I was very fortunate to have known the two main characters in real life and to genuinely like and admire them."

Of the two, however, his personal hero is Jean Devaivre. Accordingly, his favorite incident is when one Friday afternoon, Devaivre is sent home from work with a bad cold. He stops by at the office and happens upon the papers of a German official who works in the same building. Devaivre quietly pockets the papers and boards a plane to England, where he hands over the documents to British intelligence. They fly him back to France, but the trains aren't running so he bicycles several hundred kilometers to Paris, barely in time to make it to work on Monday morning, still red-nosed and coughing his lungs out. His colleagues point out that the weekend in bed has not done him much good. Devaivre agrees, blows his nose and starts working.

Says Tavernier: "To retain the facade of normalcy in a time of craziness . . . For me, this is true courage."

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