Farewell Mr Haffmann: Gripping French World War II drama one of the genre greats
Farewell Mr Haffmann (M, 116mins) Directed by Fred Cavayé ****½
With the arrival of a poster on his wall, comes a heartbreaking decision for Joseph Haffmann (Daniel Auteil).
Paris’ Jewish community are being asked to report to their local precinct, a request the jeweller knows will only end badly.
It’s May 1941 and occupying German forces have been tightening their grip on the city for almost a year. Sensing this may be the last chance to ensure his family’s safety, he sends them away, vowing to follow as soon as he’s sorted out his business affairs.
In terms of his shop, that means handing it – and his house – over to his trusted and ambitious assistant Francois Mercier (Gilles Lellouche) and wife Blanche (Sara Giraudeau) to look after.
However, Haffmann’s seemingly perfect plan goes pear-shaped when a proliferation of German guards at the train station prevents his passage. With smugglers now unwilling to take risks, Haffmann reluctantly returns home – to the dismay of the Merciers.
Struggling to conceive the child they so desperately want, Haffmann’s presence and the trouble with authorities he potentially brings is an unwelcome complication. While he agrees to be confined to their basement, it’s Mercier’s other request that trouble both him and Blanche. In exchange for posting Haffmann’s letters to his family, Mercier wants him to be a part of the baby-making equation.
Eventually agreeing in principle, in practice, he and Blanche actively avoid such a coupling, instead using the time to discuss their respective plights. “Offering him the shop was a mistake,” she opines of her husband’s behaviour, “Before then, we had nothing – now he wants it all.”
That includes a successful business, something achievable only thanks to gaining influential Germans as key clientele. Not everyone around him though is impressed by his new pals, plus, it turns out, their tastes are fickle. And so, when his latest batch of designs are rejected, Mercier presses his former boss back into full-time service, burning his letters and stealing his identity card.
Based on a 2016 play by his old friend Jean-Philippe Daguerre, who then gave him full licence to change what he wanted for any cinematic version, writer-director Fred Cavaye (Pour Elle, Mea Culpa) has crafted a terrific little tale, which goes through a number of dramatic twists and turns, before delivering a pitch-perfect crowd-pleasing dénouement.
There are times when the tension almost becomes unbearable, as Haffmann is seemingly just a heartbeat away from being discovered, while other scenes are heartbreakingly sad – or anger-inducing – Mercier seemingly caught up in an increasingly Faustian pact to not only survive, but thrive, while war is raging all around him.
At the movie’s heart are a trio of terrific performances. The ever-reliable Auteil (The Valet, Conversations With My Gardener) a compelling presence, Lellouche (C’est La Vie) a surprisingly effective villain and Giraudeau (TV’s The Bureau) truly mesmerising as the woman being compromised by her husband’s dreams, but who also may be steelier than we first perceive.
In other hands, this could have become far too schmaltzy, or impenetrably dark. Cavaye has struck exactly the right balance and tone here to ensure it is instead a haunting, at times harrowing and highly engrossing drama.
In French with English subtitles, Farewell Mr Haffmann is now screening in select cinemas nationwide.