Tuesday, 20 May 2014

MAY 20, 2014

LAISSEZ-PASSER/ Safe Conduct (2002) Directed by Bernard Tavernier. *****

I often wonder if when watching films like GODS AND MONSTERS and SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE how much the degree of enjoyment is increased or decreased by knowledge of the careers of those depicted in the films (in those examples James Whale and F.W. Murnau.) Back in the 1960's I was lucky enough to see a 1943 French fantasy film LE MAIN DU DIABLE directed by Maurice Tourneur and starring Pierre Fresnay.  Bertrand Tavernier's SAFE CONDUCT uses as its background the peculiar circumstances surrounding the production of this film. Made by Continental, a German production company based in occupied Paris but making French language films. The star director at Continental was veteran Maurice Tourneur (father of Jacques Tourneur) and it's top script writer, Jean Aurenche. Also at the studio was Henri-Georges Clouzot who at the time was making his classic LE CORBEAU. The story of SAFE CONDUCT is told through the eyes of Aurenche and Jean-Devaivre (then an assistant director but later a director). Tourneur is a supporting character as are various other luminaries of the French film industry at the time, notably Charles Spaak (who wrote LE GRANDE ILLUSION) and writer Pierre Nord. Others like Arletty and Harry Baur are mentioned in passing. Clouzot's presence is strong but he is never actually depicted. Tavernier fills out his story with details of life in Paris under the nazis occupation (food is a recurring motif) and Aurenche's involvement with the resistance which leads to an almost farcical sequence involving British intelligence (more successful than the rather stilted London scenes in Melville's ARMY IN THE SHADOWS). Much in the film is tragic but there is great humour as well and a genuine affection for the characters - Tavernier having known them personally. But the question remains : If I had not known at least the basics of the situation in the French film industry during the nazis occupation and able to pick up on names like Tourneur, Fresnay, Clouzot etc would my understanding of the story and the immense pleasure I got from it have been greatly diminished. Whatever the answer, for the dedicated cinephile with more than a casual interest in French cinema it is a real treat.  Tavernier is fast becoming one of my all-time favourite French directors and some have suggested that this film is his masterpiece.

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