Occupied Paris, 1941: all members of the Jewish community are ordered to come forward and identify themselves to authorities. Jeweller Joseph Haffmann, who runs a successful business with the assistance of his apprentice Francois Mercier (Gilles Lellouche), fears the worst and arranges for his family to flee the city for unoccupied Vichy France. He offers Mercier a deal: they sign a deed which looks on paper like a sale, Mercier and his wife move in and take over the business, and when the war is over Haffmann takes it back but helps Mercier to set up his own business, which he knows Mercier wants.
Mercier’s wife has her reservations, but in the end she sees the attraction of the deal: the flat above the shop is a lot more comfortable and luxurious than their own humble abode. Here, perhaps, is the chance for them to prosper and thrive, and perhaps even finally achieve the pregnancy for which they both long.
‘How do you know you can trust me?’ asks Mercier. ‘Because if you were dishonest you wouldn’t have asked that question’, says Haffmann.
That exchange sets the tone for what becomes both an engrossing domestic drama and a gripping wartime thriller.
The deal is done, but Haffmann’s attempts to escape are thwarted, and instead of fleeing to join his family, he is forced to hide in the basement of his own home while strangers sleep in his marital bed and German soldiers are a perpetual presence in the street outside.
Farewell Mr Haffmann is based on an award-winning play and is superbly written and acted.
Haffmann is played by veteran French actor Daniel Auteil. His wife is played by Sara Giraudeau, who you might remember as the seismologist from the brilliant French TV espionage series Le Bureau.
For once I’m going to say no more but leave you with quotes from other critics, all of which I endorse.
‘A pitch-perfect morality tale’
‘…. delves deeply into questions of conscience and character. The quality of the script is matched by the quality of the performances by Lellouche, Auteuil and Giraudeau.
‘If the premise is relatively straightforward, you may be assured that there’s a great deal more to it, none of which you should know going in. This is first-rate drama with considerable cumulative intensity – and a quorum of irony – and it’s unreservedly recommended.’
‘Absorbing. An excellent wartime thriller that examines sobering questions of morality and character. The actors bring their complex characters to life superbly.’
‘Outstanding. Rich in moral and ethical complexity.’
‘Quite wonderful cinema. The pace is gentle. The characters ring true, credible. The tension is never more than a breath away, never allowed to dominate the story nor to diminish.’
Five stars from me.