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Freedom films 

Movies from France and Hollywood offer new versions of old stories

The well-made but curiously enervating Safe Conduct, the 20th film from the veteran French filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier, is a re-enactment of life during wartime in the early 1940s, centering on the French film industry during its period of control by the Germans. Although the attention to historical detail is precise, the acting is top-notch, and the dangers posed to the characters seems real enough, I had trouble getting excited by this film.

Perhaps there's a World War II burnout factor. I mean, how many movies with heroic Resistance fighters, terrified Jews and thuggish Nazis can we watch? After so many films, from Casablanca to Schindler's List to The Pianist, is there any life left in this pageant? When does it stop being history and start being a mere plot, endlessly recycled in some creaking Globe Theatre, complete with poor players stepping into hand-me-down costumes?

It's not fair however, to single out Safe Conduct for criticism on these grounds, for this film at least carries a badge of authenticity. Tavernier, who co-wrote the script, drew on the recollections of two acquaintances who worked in the film industry during the Occupation. One man, Jean Devaivre, worked as an assistant director to such luminaries as Maurice Tourneur and Henri-Georges Clouzot (Diabolique), and the other, Jean Aurenche, was a screenwriter during that time.

As we learn from the film, German movie interests set up a studio in France called Continental Films. While some of the great French filmmakers, including Jean Renoir, had already fled the country by this time, others remained, notably Robert Bresson (Pickpocket). The movie artisans who remained were thus faced with a difficult moral dilemma: Should they work for "Fritz" if he's the only game in town, or should they starve before allowing themselves to sell out? As Tavernier relates the story, most did something in between. They simply couldn't turn down employment, so they opted for making as few compromises as possible while working within the system. They tried to sneak in subversive themes and avoided making outright pro-Nazi propaganda.

Life, as we see it in the film, was constituted of daily compromises--often driven by no baser a need that the urgency of filling one's stomach for another day. There are some amusing scenes: For example, a casting director haggles with a bit player, finally agreeing to give him a small part in exchange for "half a dozen eggs and half a rabbit--with the liver included."

Tavernier's story focuses on the choices made by his two main sources, Devaivre and Aurenche. The former is a straightforward heroic figure, a former bicycling champion who's happily married with a young son. By day, Devaivre is a competent assistant to Maurice Tourneur, one of the French film industry's granddaddies; by night, he's a fervent member of the Resistance, communicating with his comrades by code, delivering grenades, blowing up trains and stealing documents. By contrast, Aurenche is a decadent urbanite, a man devoted to his twin passions of literature and women. He lacks physical courage, but he makes his contribution mostly in refusing to write films for Fritz. He's a bit of a con, and he provides most of the film's humor in the lies he tells to keep himself out of the grasp of the Germans and in the embrace of any of his three mistresses.

Although Safe Conduct is a well-done historical drama that amply fills up its running time of two hours and 40 minutes, there's an unavoidable narcissism to this project. No country loves its filmmakers as much as France does, and no country deludes itself about what a huge fight it gave Germany as much as France does. In Safe Conduct, only film scholars will pick up on the endless allusions sprinkled throughout the film to such figures of the era as actress Danielle Darrieux and the great screenwriter Charles Spaak (The Grand Illusion).

The artists of this era represented the tradition of "quality" filmmaking, which in practice meant conservative adaptations of literary classics with lavish costumes and orchestrated music. (Today we call that kind of filmmaking "merchantivory.") The New Wave directors of the early 1960s led the revolt against these ossified conventions, but soon Truffaut himself was making "quality" films, including The Last Metro, his own tale about showbiz heroics during the Resistance.

Safe Conduct is itself a quality film, which is too bad, particularly since its most electrifying moment comes after Devaivre's brother-in-law is taken away by the Gestapo. Devaivre's wife suddenly announces, in voiceover, that she didn't see her brother again for 57 years. But she didn't see the brother alive; rather, she glimpsed him filling in the background of a scene in a wartime film, as Tavernier obligingly plays the clip for us. With this breaching of the fourth wall, Safe Conduct recalls one of the true masterpieces of the last decade, Stanley Kwan's Actress (aka Centre Stage). The unstable distinction between film and reality that Kwan explored at length in Actress briefly occupies Tavernier, and for a few moments Safe Conduct feels like an unsafe film. But it's only a fleeting bit of bad behavior, for quality and safety ultimately prevail.

Speaking of film history, whatever happened to Kevin Costner? His mulleted sensitive-guy shtick was the biggest thing going for a while, but a look at his credits reveals that his career has been in eclipse ever since Dubya's daddy was in the White House. After such Bush-era successes as Dances With Wolves and JFK, the Clinton years were not kind to this politically conservative actor. There was a whole series of overblown and/or apocalyptic films like Waterworld, The Postman, 3000 Miles to Graceland and, most recently, Dragonfly.

Probably the best thing you can say about Costner's career over the last few years is that he didn't have anything to do with Battlefield Earth. Now he's got a new flick, called Open Range, a film that is unlikely to revive his career. Unfortunately, the film isn't bad in any way that makes it worth watching. It's just lugubrious, derivative and excruciatingly boring.

Costner, Robert Duvall, Abraham Benrubi and Diego Luna play a group of cattlemen, free-grazers who take their herd all over the public lands of the West. Their enemies are the cattlemen who want to fence in the frontier, and one night a particularly nasty specimen (Michael Gambon) happens to be in the town our cowboys are passing through. One of them ends up dead, leaving the survivors to exact revenge in the lawless town (which has a corral ideally situated for this purpose).

This is the plot of precisely 13 million other Westerns, including two that I like quite a bit: My Darling Clementine and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, both directed by John Ford and featuring actors by the names of Fonda, Stewart and Wayne. But unlike Open Range, Ford's films work because, in addition to his competence at blocking and staging scenes and building sequences for maximum dramatic impact, he finds sadness and irony in his vision of the civilizing of America.

Costner's vision of the West is kitsch, the daydreams of a cubicle-bound suburban man thumbing through his copy of Outside. Watching this snoozer of a film, one can even imagine all the Yukons and Dakotas and Expeditions that the cast and crew have parked near the set of Open Range, just out of camera range. EndBlock

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