Set during the German occupation of France, Bertrand Tavernier’s 20th feature film is both dense and fast-paced, a panoramic historical piece running nearly three hours and with 139 speaking parts. Its focus is on the French film industry and how it managed not only to function but also to produce quality cinema — including a few bona fide classics — while under the thumb of Nazi control and censorship, as well as in a crippled economy where everything, including film stock, was in short supply. By keeping the story moving quickly, Tavernier conveys a sense of life being improvised in a time of great uncertainty, of the constant scrabbling, compromises and hard choices that were not only made day-by-day but hour-by-hour.
Covering the period from 1942 to 1944, Tavernier gives us two main characters who are up-and-coming talents dedicated to honing their crafts despite imposed limitations. Jean Devaivre (Jacques Gamblin) is an assistant director and Jean Aurenche (Denis Podalydès) is a screenwriter. Although their stories don’t really intertwine, both work for the German production company Continental. Each represents a different approach to work, integrity and survival, eternal concerns complicated by an anxious present and an ambiguous future.
As personalities they’re almost exact opposites. Aurenche lives a bohemian, off-the-cuff lifestyle, hanging out at a local brothel, juggling three girlfriends and constantly jotting down dialogue on scraps of paper. He has the temperament of someone who would live a disheveled life even in peacetime. By contrast, Devaivre is settled, married and with a baby, a professional intent on building a career. Ironically, the free-spirited Aurenche’s approach to the occupation is to enjoy life as much as possible below the German radar, while the more responsible Devaivre constantly puts himself at risk as a member of the Resistance.
Both Devaivre and Aurenche were real people, and the latter even went on to work on some of Tavernier’s early films in the ’70s. In fact, most of the characters in the film are based on real people and real names are used. Which raises the question as to whether or not it’s necessary to have some knowledge of French cinema during this period in order to truly enjoy the film. The answer is a qualified “no.” It’s not necessary to know the very interesting back story of Maurice Tourneur (Philippe Morier-Genoud) in order to grasp that he was a respected veteran of the industry, or exactly who Claude Autant-Lara, André Cayatte and a half-dozen other personages mentioned in passing were in order to become engrossed in Devaivre and Aurenche’s stories. But it helps to know who Michel Simon and Harry Baur were, or to be acquainted with Henri-Georges Clouzot (an often referenced off-screen character here) and the significance of his film Le Corbeau (1943) — if only to enjoy the range of the film’s comic and tragic grace notes.
Tavernier, writing with his frequent collaborator Jean Cosmos, based his film on a book by Devaivre as well as on anecdotes Aurenche related to him personally. Aside from having shown a knack for ambitious historical films, the director has always been difficult to pigeonhole — his best-known films in America are probably Clean Slate (1981), A Sunday in the Country (1984) and Round Midnight (1986). But Safe Conduct is unlike anything he’s done before, an essentially serious film that whips along like a comedy. And though he’s been accused of finessing the troubling question of what was and wasn’t collaboration (“I work under the Germans, not with them,” insists Devaivre), Tavernier has only acknowledged that nothing is simple and has given it the visual corollary of a cluttered mise-en-scène.
This was a time, after all, when a person could be summoned from his sick bed to go pick up a script at his workplace, only to find himself, several hours later, in another country and being interrogated about a secret operation he didn’t quite understand. It was a time when you could fall off the face of the earth, so that everyday heroism was less a matter of bravery than persistence.
It was, from the vantage point of 60 years later, an especially absurd time, dangerous and harshly comic — and Tavernier has captured it well.
At the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), with screenings at 7 p.m. Friday-Saturday and 3 and 7 p.m. Sunday. Director Bertrand Tavernier will introduce the Friday screening and leads a Q&A session after. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].