1997, R, 116 min. Directed by Claude Berri. Starring Marie Pillet, Jean Martin, Bernard Verley, Heino Ferch, Eric Boucher, Jean-Roger Milo, Patrice Chereau, Daniel Auteil, Carole Bouquet.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Oct. 29, 1999
Germinal director Berri teams again with his Jean de Florette star Auteil and That Obscure Object of Desire's Bouquet for this tale of the French Resistance based on the actual wartime heroics of Aubrac, née Bernard, a Parisian woman who managed against all odds to free her husband Raymond (Auteil) from the Gestapo, who arrested him on charges stemming from the couple's mutual habit of blowing up train trestles. Berri has done period work before, but Lucie Aubrac is all of a piece; the film plunges you into the experience of wartime Resistance fighters, whether it be in Lucie and Raymond's cramped yet wonderfully cozy apartment or in the gray, pocked streets of the French towns in which the story unfolds. After Raymond's initial arrest, Lucie embarks on a series of inspired schemes to secure his release, the most notable of which is her assertion that they are not married after all, but that this man is simply a brief lover who has left her pregnant, alone, and very Catholic, a fact not taken lightly by her family. Although this secures, amazingly, the sympathies of the jackbooted authorities -- who arrange for the couple to be married even while Raymond is still incarcerated -- it fails to free her husband. Working with other members of the Resistance, Lucie then formulates a plan to literally bust her man out of hell, in a scene that recalls more than anything else the recent De Niro vehicle Ronin. (Berri's film was actually shot long before, however.) Does it work? That's for me to know and for you to more than likely guess well in advance. The outcome of Lucie's plight is a given -- Berri's film is based on her memoirs, so we can rest assured going in that she lived to tell the proverbial tale. Where Berri succeeds so brilliantly with Lucie Aubrac is in his depiction of life during wartime. There's not a false note in the production and costume design, by Olivier Radot and Sylvie Guatrelet, respectively. Couple this with Berri's almost clinically romantic direction -- he loves to linger on Lucie in all her Sunday finery, and so do we -- and you've got something that calls to mind the other, untold half of Casablanca. What was going on in Vichy France while Rick Blaine saved the day in North Africa? Now we know, and to Berri's credit, every scene has a crystallizing ring of truth to it. This is, above all, a love story. The war, for all the plot complications it engenders, is secondary. Lucie might as well be trying to free her husband from the DMV after a night on the town, really. Bouquet, Auteil, and Chereau (as Resistance head Max), are all excellent, but it's the bloodied Auteuil, penned in a holding cell swarming with hundreds of none-too-shy cockroaches, who steals the show -- and Bouquet's iron will. There are passages in Berri's film in which the action drops down below the sentiment, which might leave some viewers to wonder where all the Nazis went. It's a love story, though, and all the more poignant for being one that actually survived under such tempestuous circumstances.