In watching Tavernier's latest, the technically stunning but narratively uneven "Laissez-Passer" (literally translated as "Safe Conduct"), one can see the dilemma faced by foreign distributors--namely, how to deal with the work of a filmmaker whose artistry is beyond compare, yet whose choice of subject matter remains unpredictably diverse and non-commercial.
The nearly three-hour movie takes place during World War II in German-occupied Paris and is based on the real-life memoirs of assistant director (and later director) Jean Devaivre and screenwriter Jean Aurenche. That their experiences took place simultaneously and often involved dealings with many of the same individuals is really the only point of intersect in a picture that, for the most part, simply bounces between two entirely disparate stories. Both men support the aims of the Resistance, though only Devaivre (Jacques Gamblin) actually belongs to the underground organization. Ironically, it's Devaivre who has also found himself cornered into working for the one Parisian film studio run by the Germans. All too aware that resigning would immediately place him and his activities under suspicion, Devaivre keeps his discontentment to himself and labors on, always searching for the opportunity to seize some piece of information from under the nose of the Germans that the Resistance might find useful. Aurenche, meanwhile, refuses to be complicit in any way with the occupation, opting to remain on he margins of the industry for the duration of the war, sacrificing his career for principles that, in other areas of his life, are sorely lacking.
Though "Laissez-Passer" does not have a discernible or even a conventional narrative structure, it nonetheless moves forward with a resolute pace, compiling a variety of fascinating behind-the-scenes vignettes involving such prominent figures as director Maurice Tourneur (Philippe Morier-Genoud) and famed screenwriter Charles Spaak (Laurent Schilling), best known for co-authoring "Grand Illusion" with Jean Renoir a decade earlier. These glimpses inside the French film industry of the day, interwoven with frequent shots of war-torn, bomb-decimated Parisian streets, present a staggeringly authentic portrait of the era that rivals many a Hollywood blockbuster with only a fraction of the average Hollywood budget. Tavernier's direction is fluid and natural, the art direction and staging nothing short of impeccable and the performances rich and affecting. The 2002 Berlin Film Festival even recognized as much in awarding Gamblin a very deserved Best Actor prize.
Filling a three hour running time with nothing but genius, however, is a tall order even for one such as Tavernier. And when the overall effort is as ambitious as it is here, there are bound to be stumbling blocks. For starters, the dual stories of Aurenche and Devaivre aren't exactly equal. Devaivre's is by far the more interesting tale, which becomes even more evident when Aurenche momentarily fades away two-thirds of the way through. There is also the problem of parochialism, an issue that has arisen with Tavernier's films in the past. While French audiences have never had a problem gathering the details and nuances of his films, others have often found them difficult and dense. In the case here, details--historical and otherwise--are of the essence, though they are not always presented in a clear and concise fashion. As a result, non-French viewers are likely to find themselves forced to continually play catch-up, undercutting the vibrant emotional immediacy with which Tavernier and co-writer Jean Cosmos have stitched together the varied assortment of story threads.
Criticizing someone like Bertrand Tavernier, of course, is always relative. If Tavernier stumbles, it is only relative to the very high expectations that his body of work invites. Despite having written and directed well over a dozen movies, Tavernier has really never made a bad film, and that streak continues with "Laissez-Passer." Though it is by no means his best work, "Laissez-Passer" is a distinguished and distinctive effort by a bona-fide master, a fascinating film replete with rewards to be had by all willing to make the effort to reap them. Starring Jacques Gamblin, Denis Podalydès, Charlotte Kady, Marie Desgranges, Ged Marlon, Philippe Morier-Genoud and Laurent Schilling. Directed by Bertrand Tavernier. Written by Jean Cosmos and Bertrand Tavernier. Produced by Frédéric Bourboulon and Alain Sarde. A Les Films Alain Sarde production. No distributor set. Period Drama. French-language; subtitled. Not yet rated. Running time: 170 min.