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Festival Review

Safe, for now: Jacques Gamblin
and Marie Desgranges

Safe Conduct
by Jürgen Fauth

Guide Rating -  


Bertrand Tavernier's three-hour panorama about French filmmaking under German occupation tells the story of two very different men: Jean Devaivre (Jacques Gamblin), an assistant director who grudgingly agrees to work for the German production company Continental to feed his wife and child, and Jean Aurenche (Denis Podalydes), a principled screenwriter who refuses any collaboration and lives through the occupation, penniless, in various women's beds.

Yet it is Devaivre who blows up trains and steals documents for the resistance while Aurenche has dinner with shady war profiteers. Through the paradoxical decisions required from these artists, Tavernier's expansive narrative tackles questions of responsibility and the importance of telling stories through the darkest times.

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Obsessively detailed and impeccably observed, the film is bursting with the stuff of everyday life and curious wartime anecdotes: suitcase handles cut into fingers, handwriting is illegible, Hitler busts are covered under coats, the art department's wood is requisitioned to be turned into caskets for the Russian front, a screenwriter has to work from prison, and the film crew is distributing fish conveniently killed during an air raid. In one scene, Devaivre takes over for Maurice Tourneur (Philippe Morier-Genoud) after the famous director learns that his wife has been arrested by the Germans. In another, he is taken to England to explain how he came into possession of classified Nazi documents. The episodes pile on and an entire world opens up.

Tavernier has woven a rich tapestry that never hits the dramatic high point, the life-and-death crisis that Hollywood has trained us to expect. Still, the film satisfies through its continually compelling surface, the kaleidoscopic scope of its attention, the large and small stories it tells ("Safe Conduct" has 139 speaking parts.) In the film within the film, written by the principled Aurenche and promptly censored by the Nazis, the oppressed characters call out for revolution and impatience, but "Safe Conduct's" 163 minutes fly by.

Safe Conduct ("Laissez-passer") premiered at the New York Film Festival and opens in theaters on October 11.

 Related Reviews    Related Resources
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• Official Site (in French)
• Film Festivals
• French Film

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