Bertrand Tavernier has been a long-time champion of early French cinema, contrary to critical opinion that most of it is at best outdated, and at worst the product of collaboration with the occupying German forces during World War II. His interest in restoring and reviving the films from this period and his friendship with key figures from those films has culminated in Laissez-Passer, a film about a writer and a director forced to deal with the German-controlled French cinema industry. The film’s examination of a period of history that many would rather forget about has provoked a certain amount of controversy in France - some critics seeing it as supporting passivity and collaboration as well as appealing to the conservative elements of French film-making - but anyone else will wonder really what all the fuss is about.
Based on real events and on the reminiscences of writer Jean Aurenche and director Jean-Devaivre, Laissez-Passer (Safe Conduct) shows how two different characters found their own way of surviving and dealing with the horrendous situation they found themselves and their country in. Aurenche (Denis Podalydés) is principled, refusing and making every excuse not to work with the Germans. He peppers his scripts with subtle yet subversive messages in seemingly innocuous period costume dramas. Devaivre (Jacques Gamblin) is an assistant director at the German controlled Continental studios. He makes films according to the instructions of the German management, but this apparent collaboration provides him with cover to conduct Resistance activities, printing tracts, assisting in sabotage and also gives him access to important German papers. Both men take great risks - Aurenche’s intellectual resistance and principles making him a little too outspoken, while Devaivre instinctive opportunism places him constantly at risk of being found out or denounced.
For a serious subject, there are some surprisingly light-hearted and amusing moments, but the balance is carefully and meticulously measured. Timber for sets is diverted to make German coffins, one of many restrictions that forced crews to be more inventive. One writer finishes his script from a prison cell between interrogations, and the scripts are consequently filled with images of sumptuous dishes that are denied to him and, with the food shortage, impossible to film. Aurenche’s hectic love-life meanwhile keeps the film on edge as much as Devaivre’s tense resistance activities. Alongside the film-studio drama, arrests and rounding up of Jews seems to happen almost incidentally to scenes, practically out of the corner of the eye. The effect of this seemingly casual treatment does not lessen its impact. Rather the very casualness and apparent randomness makes it all the more threatening and pervasive because it gives you the impression that it can happen to anyone at anytime.
At almost three hours long, Laissez-Passer is a long film, but it is worth every minute of its running time. Alain Choquart’s restless camera weaves the viewer along, barely giving you time to breath. Much like Tavernier’s previous film, Ça Commence Aujourd’hui (1999), (It All Starts Today), it flows to a deliberate rhythm, each scene making its impact before whirling you on to the next. The cinematography really is remarkable - every single scene of the beautiful scope presentation is immaculately composed, lit and filmed.
In a word – perfect. The 2.35:1 picture is presented anamorphically and positively radiates class. Colours are rich and warm, blacks are deep and perfectly balanced by the impeccable lighting of each scene. The cinematography is magnificent and it is well transferred here. There is not a single mark on the print and, on a double-layer disc, I saw no sign of any compression artefacts.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack is fine, but the Artificial Eye R2 release misses out on the original 5.1 track that is on the French release. I don’t think the 5.1 surround soundtrack would be overly used, but it is still rather disappointing that it is not present here.
Theatrical trailer (1.50)
The trailer is presented anamorphically at 1.85:1 and is subtitled in English.
This is a lengthy and substantial interview with Bertrand Tavernier, who speaks superbly fluent English throughout. Tavernier has plenty of interest to say about the film and about the people who contributed to the script. His one regret is that he never asked the recently deceased Aurenche, who worked as the writer on several of Tavernier’s films and famously scripted Hôtel du Nord, to come up with an autobiographical script himself for the film. The director talks about the film industry of the period and the conditions that films were shot in. The interviewer’s questions are edited out of the interview, but this doesn’t confuse.
Tavernier relates in text here how the idea of the film came about through his meetings with Aurenche and Devaivre. The director talks about all the actors with great fondness and admiration. There are 115 speaking parts in the film, so the director is clearly fond of and enjoys working with actors.
Tavernier tackles a difficult and a complex subject in Laissez-Passer and he manages to put it across very well. In the same way that Aurenche and Devaivre find time amid the terror of war to enjoy their work and strive to make it worthwhile, Tavernier, faced with tacking a difficult and controversial subject, doesn’t forget to craft a beautiful film that people will watch and enjoy, while at the same time making something of real value. There could be no better tribute to those people who lived through those times.