The history of the French Resistance has proved an inexhaustible treasure trove for filmmakers – and not only in France.
The political machinations of the era provide fuel for every kind of screen suspense: action, evasion, deception, betrayal and paranoia.
Within French culture, depictions (in both fictional and documentary form) of the French resistance have a long and complex history. Once they moved away from unambiguous celebrations of Resistance heroism, filmmakers began digging into the psychological and political ambiguities of collaboration in movies such as Louis Malle's Lacombe, Lucien (1974).
With Lucie Aubrac, veteran writer-director Claude Berri (Jean de Florette, 1986) brings this screen history full circle. This is the Resistance as Steven Spielberg might well depict it – characterised by absolute polarities of good versus evil, and a floridly romantic view of the oppressed and their daily struggles. Any mysteries that still cling to the real-life incidents are expunged or played down.
Despite its calculated simplicity and its opportunistic appeal to the populist myth of the Resistance, it is hard to really fault Lucie Aubrac. Berri has succeeded in making exactly the kind of film he intended: plot-driven, gripping, emotionally stirring – a feel-good political melodrama. And in Carole Bouquet and Daniel Auteuil, he certainly has the right stars for the job.
Raymond (Auteuil) is a key Resistance fighter. On his way to a major, clandestine meeting he is nabbed by the Gestapo and French police. His wife Lucie (Bouquet) – on whose memoirs the film is mainly based – charms her way into Gestapo headquarters and begins an ingenious masquerade that paves the possibility of rescue for Raymond and his comrades. A special frisson is added to this saga by the central presence of Klaus Barbie (Heino Ferch).
Lucie never wields a gun or punches a villain – in traditional action-movie terms, her most spectacular gesture is a little poisoning of food parcels. But Lucie is the moral centre of the film, for her wiliness, her perseverance and the force of her love for Raymond. Her determination to honour their marital pact – to always be together on a certain date every year – becomes a powerful leitmotiv of the drama.
Berri's screenplay skips over many political issues, but his expert direction gives a strong sense of what is was to live like these haunted characters during the Occupation. No one, friend or stranger, can ever be entirely trusted; every new encounter is fraught with suspicion. The passage through Lucie's and Raymond's lives of one mysterious old soul, Lardenchet (Jean Martin), allows Berri to build to his finest moment of tear-jerking catharsis.
Like the mainstream American directors he so clearly admires and emulates, Berri often merely touches on the really tricky or hot aspects of his subject. The fate of Raymond's proudly Jewish parents, or the precise reasons why a member of the Resistance betrays his comrades – these problems are deftly inscribed, but then brushed aside, cast into oblivion, as the thrilling plot moves onward (a critique, of sorts, is offered in a film that seems to secretly reference and respond to Lucie Aubrac at many points: Godard’s Éloge de l’amour .) This tendency marks both the limit of Lucie Aubrac as a political, historical analysis, and its high craft as dramatic entertainment.
MORE Berri: The Housekeeper
© Adrian Martin January 1998