Farewell Mr. Haffmann (Adieu M Haffmann)      French Film Festival

This 2021 film from director Fred Cavayé, that is an adaptation of the play of same name by Jean Philippe Daguerre, is a captivating study of human behaviour when faced with extraordinary circumstances.

Set in Paris May 1941 during the German occupation,  it tells a transfixing tale with a warren of deals and counter deals involving Polish born Jewish jeweller Joseph Haffman (Daniel Auteuil), his employee François Mercier (Gilles Lellouche) and his wife Blanche Mercier (Sara Giraudeau).

When Haffman sees that a census of Jews is being taken by the Nazis, he arranges to send his wife and three children to unoccupied rural France with the understanding that he will follow when he has wound up his affairs in Paris.  This involves his offering a deal to Mercier meaning that he gets business and house till his return. It is an honorable and mutually advantageous pact at this point. Haffmann’s business is in good hands and Mercier gets a step up in the world with a better marital home in his marriage with Blanche where a child is sorely coveted but remains a prize unwon. 

Just as the Merciers are adapting to their newfound comforts, where the disparity in wealth is evident from the silver and crystal to the dresses in Madame Haffmann’s wardrobe, Haffman returns because his smuggler failed to appear. What was to be a night’s stay in his former home turns out to last for over a year and his living a hidden life in his cellar. In that time, the dynamics between the three shift when a further deal, that is essentially blackmail, is struck between the two men but involving all three residents of Haffmann’s former home and business.

Following an initial interest by Commandant Jűnger (Nikolai Kinski), the shop swarms with German officers eager to buy trinkets for whatever women they have on their arm but when Haffmann’s work runs out, they are not so keen on Mercier’s work so a further deal is imposed. As Mercier becomes increasingly incautious in his dealings with the Germans, the bitterness and jealousy tainting the marriage worsens at the sinister turn of events.

Costume dramas of distant history may be well researched, but for more recent history, like this one, some viewers can recall the some of the reality. The film’s authenticity comes not just from the usual brownish grey palette and dull 40 watt glow of the period but from the subtle skills of the costume department led by costumier Marie Laure Lasson. The immaculately recreated street has the authenticity of those now long gone that were filmed by Albert Lamorisse in his 1956 film The Red Balloon set in the nearby 19th arrondissement.

Music composed by Christophe Julien signal the tense tone of this beautifully observed film, whose cast gives top of the range performances across the board, and whose end is laden with satisfying irony. 

Irene Brown

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