(Chris Wiegand’s article appeared in the Guardian, 2/2; Photo: Backstage secrets … Catherine Deneuve in The Last Metro. Photograph: APL Archive/Alamy.)

Our series on films about the stage continues with the 1980 classic about a playhouse in occupied Paris, starring Catherine Deneuve and Gérard Depardieu. 

The directors of the French New Wave are rightly remembered as passionate cinephiles: several of them wrote film criticism and their movies frequently pay loving homage, directly and indirectly, to other movies. In François Truffaut’s first feature, The 400 Blows (1959), his young hero is compelled to steal a still of Ingmar Bergman’s Summer With Monika from a cinema display. With Day for Night (1973), Truffaut created one of the greatest films about film-making – with himself, of course, starring as the director.

The importance of the stage to the Nouvelle Vague is less well documented. Later in this series I’ll look at how Jacques Rivette repeatedly used a theatrical backdrop in his films. But this week I’ve chosen Truffaut’s The Last Metro (1980), which was the second in a planned entertainment trilogy that opened with Day for Night and was to conclude with a film about music hall that never materialised.

The title of The Last Metro refers to the wartime curfew in occupied Paris, where theatres remained open but audiences had to rush home after the show. The second world war saw a boom in theatregoing; 800,000 people went to the theatre in one month alone in Paris in 1942, the year in which the film is set. This was not just about escapism. The prologue tells us that Parisians flocked to the theatre “for warmth” – literally so, in the cold winter of that year with fuel scarce and queues for food.

But Truffaut’s film also emphasises theatre’s potential to stoke emotional warmth, whether it’s an audience’s shared experience or, despite their bickering, the coming-together of cast and creatives putting on the show. Against the perpetual atmosphere of dread, distrust and suspicion fostered by the occupation, the illuminated stage is shown to be a refuge from the bitter streets. Watching the film again, I was reminded of how in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire local theatres such as the Gate and the Playground in west London stressed that their doors were open for those who needed a safe space for reflection.

The Last Metro revolves around a Montmartre theatre that we are shown from top to bottom: the offices where lead actor Marion Steiner (Catherine Deneuve, in a part written for her) looks after business; the quarters of the concierge who can be seen washing her son’s hair after a German soldier pats him on the head; the stage door where actor Bernard Granger (Gérard Depardieu) arrives from the Grand Guignol to star opposite Marion; and the bowels of the building where Marion’s Jewish husband, theatre director Lucas (Heinz Bennent), secretly lives in hiding from the Nazis. While she plots his escape from Paris, he is to direct her new production by proxy, listening into rehearsals on the stage above.

That production, ironically entitled Disappearance and by no accident exploring fear, secrets and lies, is by a Norwegian playwright. In a wry gag, one of the staff predicts that the critics will pan the translation – even though none of them speak Norwegian. The city’s most feared critic is the odious Daxiat, a wheeler-dealer Nazi collaborator played to perfection by Jean-Louis Richard and based on a real wartime critic. The film repeatedly considers the various roles that its characters play off the stage. Marion must maintain the pretence that her husband has fled the country, and assume a certain manner to deal with Daxiat. Bernard, after attempting to seduce the theatre designer Arlette, is chastised for playing a “banal role – as a man on the prowl” but he is additionally disguising his real-life role as a resistance fighter. And in one stunning coup de theatre, Truffaut tricks the audience into believing that a scene from the play is actually representing the actors’ own lives.

Anyone missing theatre during the Covid lockdown will look longingly at this Montmartre playhouse’s cosy auditorium, its warmth accentuated by red seats, red walls and red curtain. When Lucas sneaks up from the basement overnight, he wants to breathe in the smell of the stage; over the course of the pandemic, I’ve heard many actors talk about missing the same smell.

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