Bertrand Tavernier’s 2002 Safe Conduct is a fast-paced ensemble period picture about the lives of French filmmakers living and working in occupied Paris. In this refreshingly theatrical piece that’s totally free of inward psychology and full of stage-style acting, it’s almost as if the camera itself has a sense of humor: throughout the film, the light irony, gentle manners and energized physicality of our heroes contrast with the cruel and rude stiffness of the Germans and the shameless dishonesty of the Vichy moles and officials. We forget all about the cliché of Resister vs. Collaborator, discovering instead what certain specific people had to do in order to survive and keep making movies.
Afraid that an SS officer living in the same hotel believes he is Jewish, screenwriter Jean Aurenche (Denis Polyadès) stuffs a valise with manuscripts, breaks off an affair with actress Suzanne Raymond (Charlotte Kady), flees and takes refuge with his sweetheart Olga (Marie Gillain) in a brothel, where he works on a screenplay, listens while she tells him about her dream of opening a handbag shop, and confides to her that his father squandered the family fortune on books long ago. Under the iron rule of film producer Dr. Greven (Christian Berkel), the groomed family man Jean Devaivre (Jacques Gamblin) serves as assistant director to Maurice Tourneur (Philippe Morier-Genoud), taking over for him when the older man breaks down after his wife is arrested; and now Devaivre must ration out his film stock, pocket a carp killed by an explosion in the Seine during a bombardment of the Renault plant so that he can feed his loved ones at home, and reprimand his actors who have just eaten a bunch of turnips which the crew carved and painted to look like a gourmet entrée.
During one particularly lovely segment, Devaivre clocks out after work, bikes through Paris into the countryside (to the soundtrack of Tino Rossi singing a theme from The Pearlfishers) and rides through the night until he reaches his parents’ farm at dawn. Reunited with his mother, son, and wife Simone (Marie Desgranges), he retrieves a cache of grenades he’s been hiding since the Armistice, smuggles them back into the city, and along with a fellow resister uses them to sabotage a train depot under cover of darkness.
There are complementary scenes in which we see the two men watch the films they’ve been making. After an encoded line written by Aurenche washes over the anti-Vichy audience members at a premiere, his co-scenarist Pierre Bost (Christophe Odent) takes him aside in the theater lobby and congratulates him. Devaivre and his crew watch a special effects scene they’ve just cut together for Carnival of Sinners, and he chucks his assistant on the shoulder and whispers, “I told you it would work.”
Devaivre cuts a deal as much with his wife as with Continental Films, and when he complains “I’ve had enough!” in a moment of weakness, she snaps him out of it. Aurenche is offered a Fernandel picture, declines, and right outside the office runs into a fellow writer selling trinkets on the street; he takes the man inside and accepts the job, sharing the credit and fee, and apologizes for the poor quality of the project they’re taking on. His friend replies: “When you eat at the Devil’s house, at least you’re eating.”
The film opens with an inscription, “Dedicated to those who lived this story,” and ends with a voice-over by Tavernier himself, relating what’s became of the players, and revealing that he knows Aurenche personally. Delivered in person like this, the director’s words tip us off: all here is not as it seems; this piece isn’t just about events long since over. Besides letting us know that today’s production machine descends from those days, Tavernier also seems to be saying that the real laissez-passer, the certificate or license that allows us to move freely, is an ability to work with other people – if not blend in with them – no matter how impossible the circumstance.
Originally published in Adventure Amigos (2013)