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Denis Podalydes
Safe Conduct is homage to French cinema
The film has bright and comic moments, with a sense of danger lurking in the background.

Aseem Chhabra

Director Bertrand Tavernier's latest offering Safe Conduct, a nearly three hour long homage to French cinema, with a focus on the Nazi occupation of France, opens with two very distinct scenarios, setting the storylines for the film's two protagonists.

Jean Aurenche (Denis Podalydes) is a charming screenplay writer constantly juggling between his three mistresses and film projects. As the film begins, Aurenche is preparing the arrival of one of the mistresses in the hotel where he has temporarily taken up a room.

The woman is a beautiful actress Suzanne Raymond, who would prefer to keep her relationship with Aurenche a secret. And so Aurenche has all the hotel guests shooed away. Everything works out fine until suddenly British fighter planes cover the night sky of Paris and start to bomb the city. Raymond, a fussy actress, is annoyed. She gets no privacy with her lover and just when they are about to start their amorous interlude, they have to run for a shelter.

This hilarious sequence is in sharp contrast to the next few minutes of the film. Jean Devaivre (Jacques Gamblin), an assistant film director is a risk taker and a rash, impulsive man of action. But he is also a family man with a keen sense of conscience and responsibility. As Paris is bombed at night, Devaivre heads straight to a children's hospital where his newborn son is being kept in a children's nursery. As more and more bombs fall and the nursery's windows and doors are blown away, Devaivre and his wife try and cover up the babies in their individual bassinettes.

It is a fabulous piece of filmmaking, with the loud booming thunder of bombs falling all over the city, juxtaposed with sounds of little babies wailing. The kind of work one has gotten accustomed from the 61-year Taverner.

A near epic in its approach (the film has 139 speaking parts), Safe Conduct is Tavernier's 20th feature film, the director of such modern classics as The Clockmaker of St Paul, Death Watch (starring a brilliant Harvey Keitel), A Sunday in the Country and Round Midnight. Safe Conduct won the best actor for Gamblin at the 2002 Berlin Film Festival.

After making its rounds of the Telluride and Toronto festivals, Safe Conduct is being shown this week at the New York Film Festival. It opens in New York on October 11.

The idea of Safe Conduct came to Tavernier from his acquaintances with Podalydes and Gamblin (Tavernier and Podalydes worked together on the script of The Clockmaker of St Paul). Tavernier shows that although their paths cross several times during the film, but the two protagonists hardly ever exchange a word with each other.

The two are complete opposites. Both attempt to survive the Nazi occupation of France --- Devaivre by assisting the French resistance and at the same time working for the German-run Continental Films company. Aurenche simply keeps avoiding work that comes his way --- stalling the process, often recommending other writers and hoping that someday things will change.

It was pretty much what most French people did during the Nazi occupation --- either they stayed away or resisted in some part. While others collaborated and worked within the German run system.

One name that crops up throughout the film is that of director Henri-Georges Clouzot (Diabolique, Wages Of Fear) who worked for Continental Films and produced one of the finest French films of the war period --- Le Corbeau. (In a programming coup, last month's Telluride Film Festival screened Safe Conduct alongside Le Corbeau and Tavernier was present to introduce the two films). Although Clouzot never appears in Safe Conduct, other well known filmmakers are represented in the film. Like Maurice Tourneur (Sins Of Youth, Cecile Is Dead.

It will be wrong to assume that Safe Conduct is a war film. It is film in which war looms in a big way, somewhere in the horizon. Safe Conduct has some bright and comic moments, with a sense of danger lurking in the background.

Throughout the film, people continue their daily lives --- despite the presence of the German army on the streets. As people line up to buy the essentials, busloads of Jews are herded off to concentrations camps.

Continental Films has several German employees who sometimes appear to be caricatures --- tall overbearing men, fluent in French which they speak with heavy German accents.

Other than German army vehicles, there are not too many cars on the streets. There is a severe shortage of gas and so most people use bicycles. There are other shortages too --- basic food, meat, hot water, heat inside homes. In fact, couple of times in the film, as a break in the chapters or scenes, Tavernier has Devaivre bicycle out of the city to collect wood to heat up his apartment.

Devaivre's bicycling takes up two major episodes in the film. A former championship racer, at one time he bicycles 240 miles to spend a weekend with his wife and son in the country and then returns back home --- covering another 240 miles on the bike. He says he avoids the trains because of the constant harassment from the German army soldiers. It is one of the most lyrical and calming sequences in the films --- for the most part, Devaivre is alone on the bicycle, with the backdrop of lush French countryside, and the sky changing colours.

Towards the end of the film, in the dark of the night, members of the French resistance push Devaivre, who is down with flu, to take a train, ride his bicycle and eventually fly on a plane to a British air force base. It is a hilarious and a very surrealist moment in the film. It is Sunday night and as several British officers interrogate Devaivre --- one after another, our protagonist shivering with fever, gulps down cups of hot teas, and keeps repeating that he has to get back to work the next day.

Gamblin is a quiet actor who lets his face and body language convey the helplessness and the weight of the burden of Devaivre. Podalydes on the other hand is charming and flamboyant as Aurenche --- quite satisfied living off the women in his life. It is easy to empathise with Devaivre, just as we can admire Aurenche's ability to survive.

In showing the different faces of those who worked in the French film industry, Tavernier is also suggesting that the lines between heroes, cowards and collaborators were blurred during the Nazi occupation. And by being all of the things at sometime or the other, most French people, including Safe Conduct's two protagonists, carried forward the soul of their nation. French cinema survived the occupation and thrived after the war, because these men had the courage to withstand pressure and the ability to develop survival instincts under the strangest circumstances.

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