I couldn't help but think this while watching veteran French writer-director-producer Claude Berri's Lucie Aubrac, the story of a French schoolteacher named Lucie Bernard (Lucie Aubrac was an activist pseudonym) who, in 1943, engineers the rescue of her Jewish husband from German-controlled French custody. Both are underground Resistance fighters, sticking it to the Vichy regime behind the curtain with secret codes and double identities and surreptitious radio messages. Berri was a child in Nazi-occupied France, and the real-life Bernard has officially signed off her approval of this film version (she appears in the closing credits). These factors explain the film's tone of inerrant righteousness, but they also contribute to a certain dramatic inertia that affects many movies, both foreign and American, that deal with events and issues -- the Holocaust, racism, homophobia, institutional sexism -- that ticketbuyers are basically preordained to react against. I'm not suggesting films that endorse such things would be better (although they'd certainly be more surprising), but I do submit that sitting through a two-hour film whose message is "Nazis are evil, Resistance fighters are virtuous" is a profoundly ass-numbing experience.
But Lucie Aubrac ratchets up a notch the Gestapo-baiting by bestowing a carnal glamour on its Teutonic villains, at least in a couple of scenes. Evil Nazis are pro forma, but Evil Sexy Nazis are something of a curve ball in a film as rigorously predetermined as this one. I'm not usually the kind of filmgoer who giggles during torture scenes, but when Berri switches from a scene of Lucie's husband, Samuel (Daniel Auteuil), being whipped by thigh-high-booted Lieutenant Scholondorff (Andrzej Seweryn) to a nearby Nazi secretary straddling a desk, her skirt hiked up to expose luscious gams as she languorously chews a shiny red apple, I knew I was in the presence of a director who's so sure of his technique and his subject matter that all manner of ludicrous imagery sails through his blind spots. And no, I'm not the one with unconscious Nazi fetishes: The whipping scene ends with Schlondorff strolling over and sticking his hand between the secretary's parted thighs. (This apple strudel may look tasty, but beware: She's laced with cyanide!)
Indeed, Claude Berri, the man who's responsible for provocative American art-house hits as both producer (Tess, The Lover, Queen Margot) and director (Manon of the Spring, Jean de Florette, Germinal) once again demonstrates faultless dramatic control with Lucie Aubrac: The viewer is deftly guided through some intricate historical context as Lucie (Carole Bouquet) deals with French authorities, German overseers, and underground anti-fascism activists to secure her husband's release at first by manipulating legit channels, and then by organizing a daring, bullet-spraying roadside rescue.
The problem is, the heroes of Lucie Aubrac are all fiber and nutrition, so you can't help but savor the junk-food erotic comedy provided by those horny Gestapo officials. Carole Bouquet as Lucie reminded me, for all the world, of Wonder Woman: pale skin, perfectly applied red lipstick, unwavering eyes that shoot conviction like cold blue lasers. Whether she's perusing dead, mustachioed Frenchmen to see whether her husband's been executed yet or lacing jam with cyanide to poison a double agent, our Lucie doesn't need a gold lariat and invisible plane to vanquish the forces of German evil. As an actress, Bouquet has such brittle confidence that you need an eight-ounce glass of water to get her down and digest Lucie Bernard's moral certitude.
Berri's choice in casting the central character is a large part of the problem with Lucie Aubrac, and I can immediately think of one actress Berri could've used who would have made his romantic historical caper significantly better: the extraordinary Juliette Binoche. She can offer intelligence, tenderness, and steeliness with one glance, and with someone like her at center stage, the audience would feel the sense of perpetual peril that the real Lucie Bernard must have experienced in her campaign. As it plays now, Berri's film lacks both suspense and a heroine who actually breaks a sweat while hurling herself in the path of one of the 20th century's most merciless juggernauts.