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In homage to defiant French filmmakers

October 18, 2002|Kevin Thomas | Times Staff Writer

Bertrand Tavernier's superb "Safe Conduct" ("Laissez-Passer") is an engrossing homage to those French filmmakers who, during the occupation, managed to maintain their integrity and professionalism under the most repressive circumstances.

At once intimate drama and stirring historical epic, the film is loaded with suspense, for its central figure, an assistant director named Jean Devaivre (Jacques Gamblin), displays the same unflappability on the set as in his Resistance activities.

Tavernier drew his richly detailed and shrewdly observed account of grace under pressure -- and greedy collaborationist opportunism as well -- from the reminiscences of Devaivre and the late Jean Aurenche, whose career was revived when Tavernier chose the veteran screenwriter to help him launch his own career in the 1970s.

Jean Cosmos, another veteran, not only collaborated with Tavernier on the script for "Safe Conduct," but also contributed to their script incidents from his experiences as a young man living in Paris during World War II.

Because Tavernier has always been as passionate a film historian as he is a filmmaker, "Safe Conduct" has an acutely authentic sense of time and place. Devaivre was a champion cyclist, which comes in handy more than once, and has an athlete's resilience, which is put to the test when he reluctantly accepts a job at the German-run Continental Films. As a Resistance member, however, Devaivre will gain a measure of protection as a Continental employee and possible intelligence-gathering opportunities.

Devaivre is first assigned to work with the important pioneer director Maurice Tourneur (Philippe Morier-Genoud), who after a long and innovative sojourn in the U.S. had in the mid-'20s returned to France with his American wife.

There's a pleasing contrast between the sober Devaivre and the rumpled, fun-loving, woman-chasing Aurenche (Denis Podalydes), who is forever moving from place to place, his possessions packed into two battered suitcases. But he is as resolved as Devaivre that he will contribute nothing to German propaganda through films. As we meet a raft of characters -- there are 139 speaking parts -- "Safe Conduct" builds tension as Devaivre's Resistance activities expose him to increasing danger and jaw-dropping adventure.

With production designer Emile Ghigo's vividly evoked Paris under the occupation and Valerie Pozzo di Borgo's accurate costumes, this film brims over with the humanity, seriousness, good humor and commitment that mark all of Tavernier's work.

"Safe Conduct" is crammed with incident, and bristles with passion and energy. Tavernier treats his actors, every last one of them impressive, as an ensemble, and they are continually being required to shift moods abruptly in response to the tremendous danger and uncertainty of the times, a period between 1942 and 1944 when an ultimate Allied victory was far from assured, and when France's Jews were transported or driven into hiding.


'Safe Conduct' ('Laissez-Passer')

Unrated. Times guidelines: some violence, considerable sexual dialogue, complex adult themes.

An Empire Pictures release of a Les Films Alain Sarde/Little Bear/France 3 Cinema (France), KC Medien (Germany) and Vertigo (Spain) co-production, with the participation of Canal Plus and Studios Images 3,4,5. Director Bertrand Tavernier. Producers Alain Sarde, Frederic Bourboulon. Screenplay Tavernier and Jean Cosmos. Cinematographer Alain Choquart. Editor Sophie Brunet. Music Antoine Duhamel. Costumes Valerie Pozzo di Borgo. Production designer Emile Ghigo. In French, with English subtitles. Running time: 2 hours, 43 minutes.

Jacques Gamblin...Jean Devaivre

Denis Podalydes...Jean Aurenche

Marie Gilliain...Olga

Marie Desgranges...Simone Devaivre

Charlotte Kady...Suzanne Raymond

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