Not much of the passion at work ends up onscreen in "Lucie Aubrac," a French Resistance drama about a wife's determined efforts to save her imprisoned husband from the firing squad. Poised playing by Carole Bouquet as the true-life lead just about keeps the film watchable, but Claude Berri's starchy direction and the pic's overall dull, flat look keep a potentially heart-rending story firmly chained to the ground. Expect foreign biz to be somewhere down there with Berri's previous magnum opus, "Germinal." After a prologue showing activist Raymond Samuel (Daniel Auteuil) blowing up a train in wartime France, film proper opens in Lyon, March 1943, as Raymond & Co. are rounded up. His wife, Lucie (Bouquet), who goes under the Resistance moniker Aubrac, gets him released by threatening the local prosecutor face-to-face, and soon Raymond is given another identity and the offer of temporarily leading the northern zone of the French Resistance.
In June, however, Raymond is arrested at the house of a doctor and sentenced to death. Most of the rest of the movie cross-cuts between Raymond in his roach-ridden cell, where he’s befriended by co-prisoner Lardanchet (Jean Martin), and Lucie visiting Gestapo headquarters as she tries various ruses to get her husband out. Initially, she’s cold-shouldered by the commander, Barbie (Heino Ferch), who knows exactly who Raymond is, but later she manages to bamboozle a kindly lieutenant (Andrzej Seweryn) into believing she’s an unwed pregnant mother (half-true), so the Resistance can try to snatch him on the way back from taking their vows.
Even though the two protagonists are kept apart for most of the movie, on paper this has the sound of a potentially involving yarn of French grand amour vs. Nazi repression. (There’s also the further riff of Raymond being Jewish and Lucie not, though this is left on the sidelines.) At every step, however, the film conspires to keep the merest suspicion of any involving emotion at bay.
On a purely technical level, though Vincenzo Marano’s widescreen lensing is always well composed, the pic’s color scheme is dominantly blue-gray and interiors dimly and flatly lit. Philippe Sarde’s OK-sounding score is very sparingly used, and notably absent at moments when music would have brought a bloom to some of the emotions expressed, as in Raymond’s recitation of personal details to Lardanchet, and Lardanchet’s later meeting with Lucie back on the outside.
Also, though Raymond is generally kept center stage, Lucie only gradually emerges as a major character in a movie that bears her name. Bouquet (who took over the role after two weeks from Juliette Binoche) plays Lucie with commanding presence but, like the pic, the perf is essentially lifeless. As Raymond, Auteuil is low-key and introverted, and other thesps solid but restrained.
Berri seems to have consciously avoided the meller cliches of old-style Resistance movies and aimed for a more elevated, remote approach to the subject matter. That may be fine and dandy, but an audience needs more than good intentions to stay with a story that’s pretty static in the first place.
For the record, Aubrac herself endorses the pic in a statement at the end of the final roller.