Thursday, June 15, 2006

LAISSEZ PASSER

Jacques Gamblin, Denis Podalydes, Charlotte Kady, Marie Desgranges

Cinema 1, Shang Cineplex
11th French Film Festival

la guerre

This film is almost 3 hours long, well 170 minutes to be exact. It is a nostalgic look back into the French film industry during the second World War, German's occupation of France. All the characters and believe me there are numerous of them are real people. People who worked in the film studios. Continental Films was taken over by Germans during the 2nd World War. Well heck they practically took over everything during those days. Names like Jean Aurenche, Jean Devaivre, Spaak, Le Chanois, Clouzot, not known to non French cinephiles are the main characters in this film. They are credited as among the pioneers of a trend in French cinema called French Nouvelle Vague (French new wave) in the late 50s, early 60s. A period when directors like Godard and Truffaut made films now immortalized in dusty archives.
So for someone like me who has a rather vague idea of how French cinema developed through the years, I admit it was a bit daunting to focus on the different characters. Not familiar with their particular role in the industry I merely watched this film for the various insights it presented.
It showed us how the Germans for the sake of the art of cinema controlled the film studios. They practically decided which scripts were worth turning into movies. They supervised everything from the production aspect, the casts and revised the scripts if they found something unfavorable.
"Laissez Passer" also delves into the difficult experiences of various persons involved at the different stages of movie making. A chilling albeit brief scene is when the musical director of one film told the assistant director, he won't be able to score the music for the film. When Devaivre asked him why, the old guy merely opened his jacket to show the "Star of David" sewn on the breast pocket of his inner vestments. He wanted to flee France before his whole family would be incarcerated.
Tavernier (the director of "Laissez Passer") himself worked with most of the characters in this film. He does indeed know how it felt to be making movies during the German regime and under the Vichy government.
The movie though focuses mainly on 2 characters. Jean Devaivre (he wrote the novel, this film is based on), an assistant director and Jean Aurenche, a noted scriptwriter. Devaivre chose to work for Continental films despite it being run by Germans for the sake of feeding his family. Aurenche on the other hand, refused to compromise and never worked for any Germans. "Laissez Passer" goes beyond the behind the scenes of the film making process, it centers on the human nature aspect too of the central characters. How one man is willing to corroborate with the 'enemies' just to survive and make ends meet. While another man would rather starve than work for the occupiers.
The cinematography is very authentic. Scenes of steam trains, air raids, the bombing of Paris, the authentic film sets and of course the costume designs of the characters' clothes all contributed to give us a glimpse of that era. The film had this grainy feel to it and it looked like it could have been filmed in the 1940s yet its play date was in 2002. I do not know the actual persons the characters portrayed so I cannot say for sure if they were depicted accurately. Yes, there are many characters involved and I sometimes tend to mix them up since some of them looked alike. The pacing is a bit slow in the beginning. A few flat scenes too when the scenarios were mostly in the film studios. It picks up a bit towards the end. Tavernier added a little suspenseful episode in the life of Devaivre who was an active member of the resistance. He would help in any way he can to hand them documents he 'stole' from the safe of the Germans running the Continental film studios. A neat trick was to show some original clips from the black and white films which they were supposedly working on in the studios. It validated the authenticity of the film.
It is indeed a rather long movie but if you are ever interested in absorbing contemporary history then you would hardly notice the time. You don't need to have a full grasp of the evolution of French cinema to appreciate "Laissez Passer". You can simply enjoy the way Tavernier presented us with a film about humanity during harsh, desperate times. Even if there was a war raging in the battlefields, people irrespective of their nationalities, French or Germans still valued the art of film making. They respected cinema as a way of entertainment as well as some sort of escapism from the dire conditions. An idea still permeated in the 21 century.

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