Friday September 24, 1999
Claude Berri's "Lucie Aubrac" has it all: a tender romance, acute suspense, terrific acting, and a camera style and and score that are beautiful yet understated. Most important, it has an impeccable sense of period and draws from a true story that casts light on one of France's darkest, most painful eras.
This is a major work, possessing breadth, depth and passion, by a formidable writer-director whose string of hit comedies has rightly become overshadowed by his more recent evocations of the past drawn from literature, most notably Pagnol's "Manon of the Spring" and its sequel "Jean de Florette" and Zola's "Germinal." "Lucie Aubrac" looks to be a best foreign film Oscar contender--from a filmmaker who won an Oscar on his first try, for the short film "Le Poulet" (The Chicken) in 1963.
To counter the strategy of the wily attorney for Klaus Barbie, the sadistic Gestapo chief of Lyon, at last brought to trial for crimes against humanity in the 1980s, Resistance heroine Lucie Aubrac decided to write her memoirs, published in France in 1984 and in the U.S. in 1993 as "Outwitting the Gestapo." She was specifically concerned about the attorney calling into question certain members of the Resistance's attitudes toward the arrest of leader Jean Moulin, who was attempting to unite groups of differing political allegiances in the common cause of sabotaging the Germans.
With the blessing of Aubrac and her husband, Raymond, Berri brought their story to the screen accurately but with some freely acknowledged--and actually relatively minor--dramatic license in regard to the activities of the Resistance for reasons of structure and pacing. This enabled the film to play like a romantic thriller--the essence of the Aubracs' tale.
Aubrac was the Resistance code name for Raymond Samuel (Daniel Auteuil), a Jew, and Lucie Bernard (Carole Bouquet), a Gentile, who married nearly 60 years ago and decided to keep their wartime name. When the film opens, in March 1943, the couple and their infant son are living in a charming 19th century home on a fine old tree-shaded avenue in Lyon. Raymond takes on daring missions for the Resistance, while Lucie is a dedicated and inspired grade school teacher concerned that her pupils understand the importance of learning from the past and remembering for the future all they are living through in the present. On the surface Lyon seems not only a beautiful place but also one marked by civility, despite the Nazi occupation. But as anyone who has seen Marcel Ophuls' Oscar-winning "Hotel Terminus: Klaus Barbie--His Life and Times" (1988) knows, the city was a place of constant and lethal danger under the Butcher of Lyon's reign of terror.
Yet the Aubracs respond to the increasingly tense atmosphere with a passionate love for each other that flowers and strengthens in times of peril. When Raymond is arrested in an apartment that is ostensibly headquarters for a black market operation in sugar and noodles and the state attorney suspects rightly that it is a front for a Resistance meeting place, Lucie boldly pays a visit to the attorney. Threatening him with assassination in the name of the Resistance and its leader, Charles De Gaulle, she swiftly wins her husband's release.
The next time will be tougher, for Raymond is caught as he is about to join a high-level meeting with "Max"--the mysteriously betrayed and soon-to-be-martyred (at the hands of Barbie) Moulin (Patrice Chereau). (The June 21, 1943, meeting was in the office/home of a Dr. Dugoujon, who had as a patient Berri, who would turn 11 on July 1; the same Dr. Dugoujon allowed Berri to shoot inside that very abode.) Lucie becomes immediately determined to stop at nothing to save her husband's life and those of his imprisoned colleagues.
Berri brings to bear the authority and ease of 35 years of filmmaking to make Lucie's story, a wondrous interplay of luck and pluck, totally persuasive with his writing and direction. Bouquet and Auteuil make the Aubracs seem a couple of exceptional devotion, character, intelligence and courage. Berri shows just how barbarous Barbie and his minions could be, without lingering over their savagery, and Berri manages to make the Aubracs' story seem as authentic as it is entertaining; indeed, "Lucie Aubrac" plays like Fred Zinnemann's suspenseful and exciting 1973 classic "The Day of the Jackal," based on Frederick Forsyth's bestseller about a plot to assassinate De Gaulle.
The occupation, which brought out the best and the worst in the French, and the role of the Resistance have been tackled by French filmmakers of the caliber of Jean-Pierre Melville and Rene Clement, but have rarely been dealt with since Ophuls' scathing 1971 documentary "The Sorrow and the Pity" opened up old wounds. More than enough time has passed since then for "Lucie Aubrac" to make a fresh impact, both as a love story and as commentary on a treacherous time for good people.
Lucie Aubrac, 1999. R, for violence. An October Films release of Renn Productions presentation of a Renn Productions/TFI Films Production/Rhone-Alpes Cinema/DA Films/Pricel production. Producer-director Claude Berri. Executive producer Pierre Grunstein. Screenplay by Berri; based on the memoirs of Lucie Aubrac, "Ils partiront dans l'ivresse." Cinematographer Vincenzo Marano. Editor Herve de Luze.. Music Philippe Sarde. Costumes Sylvie Gautrelet. Production designer Olivier Radot. In French, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 56 minutes. Carole Bouquet as Lucie. Daniel Auteuil as Raymond. Patrice Chereau as "Max" (Jean Moulin). Heino Ferch as Klaus Barbie.