REVIEW: Done in By Detail; Tavernier's Sprawling "Laissez-Passer"
by Peter Brunette
[EDITOR’S NOTE: indieWIRE originally published this review in February 2002 as part of our Berlin coverage. The film is currently playing at the 40th NYFF and Empire Pictures is opening the film Friday.]
The estimable veteran French director Bertrand Tavernier has chosen a marvelous subject for his new film, “Laissez-Passer,” which had its premier a few days ago here at the Berlin Film Festival. Set in Paris during World War II, the film actually manages to explore a completely new milieu about this period, namely the Continental Films studio, which made frothy French films under stringent German supervision. Anyone who has ever encountered Tavernier even for a moment knows that he rivals and perhaps even surpasses Martin Scorsese in his obsessive passion for and knowledge about cinema history. That passion and knowledge are evident in every minute of this nearly three-hour film, but alas, they also serve as its downfall.
Tavernier’s overcomplicated tale is putatively structured around the lives of two real-life figures, Jean Devaivre (Jacques Gamblin), an assistant director and family man who secretly fights for the resistance, and Jean Aurenche (Denis Podalydès), a womanizing, neurotic scriptwriter. The conceit, never explored but presumably present for the buzz of irony it provides, is that as we alternate between their stories, the two characters only pass each other briefly on the street or in the hall, where they glance meaningfully at each other (a la Kieslowski?) but share no more than a nod.
The sheer number of small historical events Tavernier includes defeats him at every turn. There’s simply too much — too much story, too many characters, too much dialogue — and it’s obvious that this passionate cinephile has simply been too scrupulous to cut corners. Tavernier has drawn his script “liberally” from the memoirs of the two men, and as any writer can attest, it’s often most difficult to write about the things you know the best, because you sense how denaturing every omission is and you can’t bear to cut and simplify.
Despite this abundance, there is, strangely, never enough narrative oomph to carry the film along, perhaps because it never ever gets focused. What substitutes for plot is a generalized fear, shared by all, of what the Nazis might dream up next, and whom they might imprison. But the central strand in a sprawling tale like this has to stand out like a neon light. By the time the film comes to a close, and the all-too-few potential emotional payoffs are lined up, so many characters and events have been introduced that you don’t know who is who or what is what. Hence all the emotion is drained from the experience.
Owing to the same scrupulousness, Tavernier has, for example, decided to include recondite debates about Jacques Clouzot‘s “Le Courbeau,” a marvelous film that has been both attacked and defended by specialized film historians for its symbolic portrayal of France. But only the most devoted French cinephile will have the slightest idea what’s at stake here. There’s another scene in which the famous actor Michel Simon stands up to his German masters, but Tavernier doesn’t — can’t, really — take the time to make this meaningful to anyone without a Ph.D. in French film history.
Tavernier compounds his error by employing a super-energized camera and hyperactive scenes full of bustling, constantly quipping characters whose jokes fall flat because everyone’s been too busy to set them up properly. Most of these one-liners concern the incredible trials and deprivations Parisians were put through during the Occupation, and Tavernier splendidly recreates the period, but he seems to have become so obsessed with getting all the details right that he forgot to tell a coherent story. Out of all this frenetic action, little that is ruminative or moving can ever surface, and you can’t escape the feeling that the camera’s constant pirouetting results from Tavernier’s justified fear that his unfocused story will never be able to hold the viewer’s interest.
There are plenty of powerful moments, as when the famous director Jacques Tourneur, concerned about his recently arrested wife, turns over the direction of a scene to Devaivre, who handles himself well. There’s another great moment when the German head of the studio, Dr. Greven, who knows more about French culture than the French, admits that French cinema is less than it once was because all the Jews are gone. In another powerful scene, Greven excoriates a Frenchman for letting the Germans run over them so easily in 1940.
At a dinner with some French collaborators and a few pretty French actresses (who attend after being bribed with the promise of oysters and some real coffee), Aurenche defends the making of period films by saying that it’s a good way “to put across some ideas that might otherwise be censored.” Censorship may be gone in 2002, but the thought is still true: it is a good way to put across some ideas. Too bad Tavernier was waylaid by too many of them.
[Peter Brunette contributes frequently to the Boston Globe and has written several books on European cinema.]