Bertrand Tavernier is one of the most famous names in French cinema and inversely one of the most overlooked. Sure, his films lack the visual razzle-dazzle of a Scorsese, the awe of a Spielberg or the violent grace of a Takeshi Kitano yet he matches them toe-to-toe in storytelling manipulation and technical mastery. Tavernier excels with his innate subtlety, something his international peers can rarely be accused of. And this could explain his lack of recognition. Subtlety has a habit of not standing out in the crowd.
Laissez-passer sees of all his abilities working in harmony to bring a labour of love to screen. It is the true story of those who continued working in the Paris film industry during Les Annes Noire of German occupation. It is a multi-narrative piece of film-making that encompasses various communities of characters. The two we become most familiar with are Jean Devaivre (Jacques Gamblin) and Jean Aurenche (Denis Podalydès). Devaivre is a family man, an assistant director, a former bicycle racer and a communist member of the resistance. He is also working for the German production company Continental where he's respected for his efficiency. Aurenche, on the other hand, is a bed hopping bourgeoisie whose scriptwriting never funds his lifestyle and whose romantic principals lead him to procrastinate but never take any action. As the occupation forces them in and out of moral dilemmas and personal danger they achieve some of their best (though mainly uncredited) work. Yet who is the collaborator? He who sleeps with the enemy to fund his movement with information and family with food or he who, basically, just sleeps around?
There is a certain duality to the two Jean's characters despite their obvious different values and activities. Tavernier plays them as ships who pass in the night, always on the verge to talking to each other but never really interacting past polite recognition. The fact that he has cast talented but unknown actors who resemble each other physically increases the feeling that we are viewing opposite sides of the same coins. Other pivotal characters can be paired of with each other through likeness and actions. The most potent of these visual linkings is the misdirection caused with the similarly styled member of the Gestapo and a possibly collaborating member of the Vichy Government. Such a coded hoodwink should send audiences in a spin of uncertainty as our heroes approach them tentatively.
This fits in well with the intertextual games Tavernier plays in the film. Just as the fun with doppelgangers creates farcical confusion, much is done to mix the film's political and melodramatic scenes with the White Telephone style comedy that these people are producing for mass consumption. Time and time again, Tavernier proves himself to be a dab hand at building up to the punch line in sequences that would otherwise be predictably fraught with danger. They still are, of course, but the tension is both cut and then increased by focusing on Devaivre's exasperation at the increasingly ridiculous escalations of his predicaments. Whether it be covering a room full of babies with blankets as the Allied bombs rain destruction on Paris or having to get back to his sick bed before it is discovered he has absconded, Gamblin displays expert comic timing, almost in spite of his role's inherent stoicism.
Part social history, part history of cinema; Tavernier has produced an epic. Never overblown or over baked, the director's tribute to those who made the art form he clearly loves are such an intimate dozen or so rolls of celluloid that they would, you'd like to think, appreciate. Laissez-passer would make an excellent double bill with Costa-Gavras recent Amen (2002). Provided you can take five whole hours of fantastic, thought-provoking, tear jerking, nail biting movie heaven, that is.
Reviewed by Bob Carroll
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