Fleeing south in 1940

Reading “Storm in June” (the first novel in Suite Française)  stimulated me to watch “The Last Train” (simply “Le Train” in French) again, though I remembered how “horrible” the color transfer is and the annoyance of the dialogue being dubbed (though I think that the multilingual Romy Schneider might have dubbed herself).

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A romance in a crowded freight car filled with people fleeing the Nazi invaders across France in June of 1940 no doubt sounds a dubious enterprise to many, and when the 1973 French movie was shown in Anglo North America, some viewers were vociferously offended at the very idea that a very conventional-seeming electrician, whose daughter and pregnant wife were traveling in first-class would undertake to protect a lone woman—however coolly elegant—in a box car, and that people would copulate during the many nights on the train, between Luftwaffe strafings.

Characters of the prolific Georges Simenon would! And the phenomenon of marrying and/or getting it on before a man goes off to combat in which he has a good chance of dying is not exactly unprecedented. “Pretty” it ain’t, but the panicked flight before the Hun hordes was far from pretty, as Némirovsky showed, writing at the time.

Surely, the lone woman seeking protection and warmth while terrified is not difficult to credit. And how many men would fight off Romy Schneider ca. 1973? I have not doubt that she turned the heads of many married men in real life.

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Anna, Schneider’s character in “The Last Train” has no expectations of kindness or chivalry. In a black dress with her hair pulled back in a very tight bun, she looks severe. Given that the movie is dubbed, it is fortunate that her most important scenes are wordless. Commanding the screen, she makes the viewer attend closely to the slightest flicker of facial expression.

Her champion, Julien Maroyeur (Jean-Louis Trintignant in the midst of an extraordinary run of international successes that included “A Man and a Woman,” “Z,” “The Conformist,” “Les Biches,” “My Night at Maude’s”—and much later, “Rouge“) has never had a vacation or an adventure, and presumably has never ventured into infidelity (not having been popular with girls). The trip south puts him in a liminal state.

Anna does not expect him to be heroic—or a great lover (romantic, that is). It has clearly never occurred to him that he might be (either), and he surprises himself. (Movie audiences are accustomed to men rising to the challenges of heroism and love, but one suspects that Julien has not imagined himself as being like screen heroes…)

I love train-bound or train-centered movies (The Lady Vanishes, The Narrow Margin, The Train, Murder on the Orient Express, and, my absolute favorite, Shanghai Express) and especially steam locomotives like the one much observed herein. Locomotive C253 seems like a major character in the movie, which increases my appreciation of it. (On the other hand, other passengers—including Julien’s wife and 7-year-old daughter—have some screen time, but make little impression.)

The best part of the movie, however, is the last five minutes, which occur in a French police office rather than on a train. It is very unsensational and very tense with Paul Le Person as a suave human crocodile presiding.

The colors are very degraded (making all the flesh tones too close to that of crocodiles, washed out blues, and reds turned brown). Through a crummy print, the very stripped-down performances of Schneider and Trintignant can still be glimpsed. My rating is of the movie. My rating of the DVD would be 1-.

The movie was directed by Pierre Granier-Deferre, who adapted many Simenon novels, including dozens of Inspector Maigret policiers. He directed Simone Signoret in adaptations of two Simenon novels that I badly want to see (Le Chat, L’étoile du Nord) but that are not available on DVD. (I also particularly wish that I could see “Christine” and “The Victors” with Schneider.)

©2006, 2019, Stephen O. Murray

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