Home French Extraordinary parting shots in Farewell Mr Haffmann

Extraordinary parting shots in Farewell Mr Haffmann

by Bernard O'Shea

One of the most talked about films of the 2022 French Film Festival, Farewell Mr Haffmann (Adieu Monsieur Haffmann), has gone on general release through Palace Films in Australia. See it if you can. Set in Paris during the second world war, it’s full of tension and nail-biting moments. My nails survived simply because I had a delicious caramel-honeycomb choc top ice-cream to bite into instead at the time. Palace Cinemas’ choc tops are the best!

Adapted from an award-winning play by Jean-Philippe Daguerre, its trio of stars – Daniel Auteuil, Gilles Lellouche and Sara Giraudeau – give outstanding performances in what is an unusually claustrophobic setting. Most of the scenes are shot inside a jewellery shop, the cellar underneath it and the living quarters above.

Three’s a crowd: Daniel Auteuil, Sara Giraudeau and Gilles Lellouche in Farewell Mr Haffmann.

Up close and personal

Farewell Mr Haffmann isn’t a typical war or action film: there are no battle fields in sight, no valiant heroes thwarting a more powerful enemy. The Nazis Instead, writer director Fred Cavayé has conjured up a fascinating study of human nature and how some men can so readily turn into monsters.

Cavayé originally conceived of the film on a much wider scale, but COVID lockdown restrictions in France at the time of filming put paid to that. ” When I started adapting the play, I wrote scenes in train stations, neighbours talking, street life… I had to reduce them because of  the lockdown, but the truth is, I realised the footage was more compelling when we remained on the characters,” he says.

“I felt the same thing in the editing room, and I ending up cutting scenes we’d shot. We had to stay with the main
characters. We had to suggest the outside world without showing it.”

The best-laid plans go badly awry

Auteuil plays Haffmann, a Jewish jeweller who has to flee the Nazis in Paris, and so sells his shop cheaply to his employee, François Mercier (Lellouche), on the condition that the latter will sell it back to him for the same price when the war is over. Fat chance!

Things go awry, Haffmann can’t escape but what’s done cannot be undone. Mercier is officially the owner and the Nazis  recognise him as such. There social tables have been turned: the former employer’s now the employee. More brutally, it transpires, the master becomes the servant, confined to the cellar.

Mercier and his wife Blanche (Giraudeau) get to live in more comfort than they’ve ever known in the Haffmann family apartment (Haffmann’s family escaped earlier). But they can rarely relax. If they get caught for concealing a Jew, the Nazis will no doubt kill them. Ironically, the danger increases because the principal Nazi Commandant Jünger (played by Nikolai Kinski, below right, son of the legendary Klaus Kinski) becomes their leading customer. It’s the most awkward of friendships, and Mercier is despised by his neighbours for being a collaborator.

Mercier has to be wary of Commandant Jünger’s prying eyes.

It’s happening now: Cavayé’s prophetic words

A confronting sub-plot is Mercier’s ever desperate attempts to impregnate his wife and start the family they have always wanted. Finally he accepts he’s infertile, but his twisted surrogate ‘solution’ puts Blanche in a terrible predicament. It’s a film packed with a all sorts of moral dilemmas.

Farewell Mr Haffmann is grim but utterly fascinating and thought-provoking. And just because it’s set in World War II doesn’t mean it’s old history and has no relevance for today. As Cavayé says, “We could transpose it to present-day Calais with a migrant hidden in a basement. Showing how a man becomes a monster is timeless. It’s happened before, it’s happening now and careful, because it will happen again…”

Cavayé was speaking before Russia invaded Ukraine. He could transpose it to that country too. Just google ‘Monsters of Mariupol’. M5R

Also coming to cinemas near you

Other movies from the 2022 French Film Festival that will go on general release later this year in Australia and New Zealand are

Photos and interviews courtesy of Palace Films. © Vendôme Production

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Gérard Depardieu’s surprising comeback

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