Monday, March 22, 2010

The Last Metro

This past week has brought tragic news of the sudden illness and death of violinist-violist, Ruth Sereque, my colleague from the Northwest Chamber Orchestra and Pacific Northwest Ballet Orchestra. When Ilkka told me the upsetting word of her passing, I screamed. In all honesty, I thought Ruth would outlive us all. She might have been the poster child for Whole Grains, Nature's Path, or Erewhon; her youthful looks belied her age. Even when I was in my mid-twenties, I couldn't keep pace with Ruth's stride up the Queen Anne counterbalance, her viola strapped to her back. After poking around thrift shops, garage and rummage sales (as she taught me how to stretch a buck), we'd head back to her place for fresh baked bread or pizza, and a steaming bowl of vegetable or bean soup. We compared notes about stage fright and how our husbands were spared the condition. She marveled that Chris, her husband, would appear years younger whenever he played concerts as principal clarinetist for Seattle Symphony, that his face radiated the delight and innocence of a child whenever he played a solo. Meanwhile, we'd joke how the strain of performance nearly killed us. I'm not sure which of us, Ruth or myself, was more phobic about auditions—I think our score was just about even.

It is said that old age and death are the great levelers. I'd even hedge a bet that a depressed economy guides people to think and behave differently, as in a reassessment of values. Which leads me to a sense of awe and gratitude for an impromptu visit and gift of "The Last Metro" I received from a musical genius friend a few days ago, who probably has felt every bit as dispossessed and exiled as I have. My only regret was that our rapprochement was long overdue, and I wish I had gone to him first with an apology, requesting a second or third chance.

François Truffaut's film "The Last Metro" takes place in Paris during the Nazi Occupation. The narrative, based on images of Truffaut's childhood, revolves around life backstage and behind the scenes at the Montmartre Theatre. The title refers to the practice under which Parisian theaters ended shows in time for audience members to catch the last train before the 11:00 curfew. People flocked to the theaters for warmth as heat was lacking in their homes. At least they could huddle together in the theater.

Madame Steiner, played by actress Catherine Deneuve, unbeknown to her colleagues and friends is hiding her director husband, Lucas Steiner, a Jew, in the cellar of the theater to protect him from the Gestapo. Steiner has been forced off the stage and, as a result,  faced with a profound sense of loss and displacement. At one point in "The Last Metro", Lucas Steiner climbs up to the stage from his makeshift set in the cellar at night accompanied by his wife, "Let me just breathe in the smell of the stage." 

Meanwhile, a young rising star, Bernard Granger, played by Gérard Depardieu, joins the troupe for a play called "The Disappearance" which was supposed to have been directed by Steiner. Bernard Granger (Depardieu), who we come to regard as a hopeless womanizer, is at the same time a partisan for the  Resistance. A parallel to the meaningless flirtations with the ladies are the risks Granger endures while working for the underground to rescue his country from the German Occupiers. And it is, of course ironic, that Lucas Steiner (who is in a different sense underground, in the cellar), wishes to be on stage while Granger is on stage but desires to pursue his work underground. Bernard Granger is the only member of the troupe who refuses to collaborate, on any terms, with members of the Gestapo. In one riveting scene, Granger, who has received a glowing review as a "rising star" even though the play and the rest of the cast is panned, attacks the sinister critic from the Right Wing paper "Je Suis Partout" (I Am Everywhere). The critic, who has strong ties to the Gestapo, has panned the play because he himself desires artistic control of the theater. Granger forces an apology out of him to the entire cast. While everyone else in the Montmartre family makes nice to the duplicitous critic and nods an acceptance to the Gestapo officials for reasons of sheer survival, Granger refuses to comply. He lashes out at the others: The theaters are full but jails are just as crowded.

The sparse score by Georges Delerue which serves to heighten tension proves that less can be more. My daughter Sarah walked into the room during the middle of the film, heard a strained motif and asked, "Who is that character? I can tell from the music he must be evil." As it turns out, Truffaut had collaborated with Delerue eleven times throughout his career; I must point out, collaboration in the positive sense of the word.
"The Last Metro" is a film which recognizes that the theater imitates life, and life imitates theater. I hold Truffaut's masterpiece dear, and in my heart, the person who gave it to me.

This post is dedicated to the memory of Ruth Sereque. Photo of us together in Manhattan during mid–80s

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