“Farewell, Mr Haffmann” (M) **** and a half
Paris in 1941. Hitler’s Wehrmacht is about to arrive.
Eight decades later, after a combination of pandemic and weather laid waste to a purpose-built streetscape set, writer/director Fred Cavaye eventually filmed Jean-Philippe Daguerre’s award-winning play about jeweller Joseph Haffman (Daniel Auteuil) for the screen.
Haffman is an artist and craftsman with a wife and three children. And a partly-crippled employee, François Mercier (Gilles Lallouche) who’s unable to impregnate his wife Blanche (Sara Gurardeau) a country girl desperate to have a child.
The German take-over of the city threatens a pogrom. To avoid it, Haffman enters into a clever ploy. He will send his family to unoccupied France and live secretly in the cellar of the shop; Mercier will become Haffman on the identity card, run the business and occupy the apartment; when war ends, the arrangement will be reversed and the property and business will return to their rightful owner.
The film that Fred Cavaye has made from this mise-en-scene is quite wonderful cinema. The pace is gentle. The characters ring true, credible. The tension in the shopfront, workshop and apartment above the cellar where Haffman now lives is never more than a breath away, never allowed to dominate the story nor to diminish.
Most of all, the film displays not only its principal characters but also a constant awareness of their emotional needs. We might also feel that its treatment of the occupation correctly reflects how it actually might have been. A young German officer with a compassionate streak that flouts the policy about Jewish men. Two gendarmes, not soldiers, make an arrest.
And the wordless sequence immediately preceding the unexpected onset of closing credits is an acme of subtlety, an eloquent invitation to the filmgoer not to grieve about the unhappy social environment underlying its storyline.
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Ian Meikle, editor