Possessed of a mysterious, swoony relationship with its own history, cinema has indulged in self-eulogization since the Screen Snapshots shorts of the ’20s and ’30s and Cornell’s Rose Hobart. Even so, only recently have biopics about filmmakers become a viable genre, and Bertrand Tavernier’s Safe Conduct (Laissez Passer)—a rangy, irreverent, episodic odyssey through French filmmaking during the Occupation—is one of the very best movies ever made about the life of moviemaking.
Tavernier, whose passion for the legacy of his medium rivals Scorsese’s, has grown into one of the world’s vital humanist voices, having acquired in his maturity a bruising camera eloquence and heart-throttling naturalism that make the last decade’s worth of work—L.627, Capitaine Conan, It All Starts Today, and Safe Conduct—full-course meals in a time of fast-food malnutrition. It’s typical of Tavernier that the new film’s almost beatific fondness for the industry toilers of yesteryear goes hand in hand with respect for the personal wounds of history and how they were hidden in movies made right under the Nazi’s turned-up schnozzes.
This epic love letter evolved organically from conversations Tavernier has had over the years with screenwriter Jean Aurenche (who wrote The Walls of Malapaga, Occupe-toi d’Amélie, and Forbidden Games, and died in 1992 at 88) and director Jean Devaivre (who assisted Maurice Tourneur, André Cayatte, and Richard Pottier during the war), as well as from Devaivre’s recent memoirs, and it begins during an air-raid-interrupted tryst. Wrenching Aurenche (Denis Podalydes) away from his movie-diva consort, the bombing sequence is Tavernier at his most immediate. Aurenche’s travails only begin with his multiple lovers; French filmmakers were under enormous pressure to work for the Nazi-controlled Continental Films. Amid a hailstorm of micro-stories, offscreen cataclysms, chance encounters, and principled debates, Aurenche and his struggle to not write German-produced movies becomes overshadowed by the roughly parallel odyssey of quiet, conscientious Devaivre (Jacques Gamblin), who decides to accept Continental employment to abet his hair-raising engagement in the Resistance.
Tavernier’s exposition is invisible, his textures evocative and unpretentious, his regard for his characters fundamental and kind. A tense force field of moral ambiguity surrounds every scene—the unsteady line between aiding the occupiers and resisting them varies for every context and participant. Chutzpah is as common as compromise, but Devaivre emerges as a genuine hero, tested in all conceivable ways (even by the idiotic muddling of British spies). In weaving historical detail with ethical conflict, the movie is enormously sophisticated but as ebullient and free-form as The Right Stuff. In fact, modest at nearly three hours, Safe Conduct could’ve made a glorious eight-hour mini-series. Meanwhile, Nazi victim/’30s icon Harry Baur is movingly eulogized, and one Nazi-executed young man—Devaivre’s brother-in-law, and a fleetingly seen extra in Au Bonheur des Dames (1943)—gets his moment in the cinematic sun. Like Godard’s In Praise of Love, Tavernier’s film is an entrancing, rueful inquiry into movies as historical cross-examination. But Tavernier hasn’t lost his hope as Godard has, and his life-love is as fervent as his cinephilia.
A film that never asked to be made, Guy Ritchie’s version of Lina Wertmüller’s 1974 firestarter Swept Away is merely an indulgent vehicle for Mrs. Ritchie—and Madonna is so spectacularly convincing as a hateful, self-absorbed, nouveau riche ogress that her character’s third-act transformation is as preposterous as her overmuscled physique. Wertmüller was a confrontationalist, and if her original never made much sense (was she advocating wife-beating, rape, primal patriarchy, and Jack London survival skills, or was she playing games?), Ritchie’s film isn’t even sensational (both rape and Marxism have been removed from the mix). The first film skated by virtue of uproarious, oversized performances: Mariangela Melato was lusciously spoiled, and Giancarlo Giannini, especially in his English focking-beech dubbing, was a scene-eating monster. Neither the tone-deaf Madonna nor Adriano Giannini, doing a superb yet bloodless riff on his dad, has more than the slipperiest grip on the scenario’s satirical outlandishness. Like life on the island, the movie grows boring despite the scenery.