Paris was not destroyed by the retreating Germans during World War II, so the outcome of Diplomacy is not in question. That is, unless some Inglourious Basterds–style historical embroidery were to break out. But director Volker Schlöndorff is no Quentin Tarantino, and Diplomacy plays as a minimalist dialogue on the nature of ethics and responsibility. Most of it takes place in a room at the Hotel Meurice in August 1944, the headquarters of General Dietrich von Choltitz (Niels Arestrup). Von Choltitz has been military governor here for less than a month; with the Allies already pounding at the outskirts of town, he’s doomed to eventually surrender the city. But Hitler has charged him with destroying the riches of Paris—bridges, Notre Dame, the Eiffel Tower—before capitulation.
[Originally published in Movietone News 55, September 1977]
The personal style and vision evident in Jeanne Moreau’s directorial opus one has as much to do with movies, and with a career—and a life—on film, as with the so-called “real world.” The opening title sequence is a flashy and rhythmic clash of type-styles evoking the media hype of film advertising: names in lights, the calligraphy of stardom. Constantly throughout the film the language of movies becomes, or replaces, the language of life. Thomas, the has-been boyfriend being slowly eased out of Sarah’s life, “directs” her leavetaking from him in a prophetic early scene: “She kisses him and turns to go,” he says, as Moreau the actress does just that; and then, “she leaves…. Cut!”—and Moreau the director cuts. And just as movie talk replaces “real” talk, and montage replaces the duration of real time, so, in Lumière, movement is camera movement. The camera is virtually never still during the opening sequences, which form a present-tense prologue placing the remainder of the film firmly in the realm of memory. Moreau’s composition conveys the sharpness of painful memory, even while her ambling camera and almost random continuity carry with them the atmosphere of the process of human reflection. Sound often precedes image, as if inspiring it (in the archetypal creative act, the word of creation always precedes the object created): several sequences begin with a bridge of dark frames accompanied by a sound that will be explained only when the next image meets our eyes. So even while keeping us aware of her medium and its limitations, Moreau reminds us of its power of suggestion, its extension beyond mere light, into feeling and meaning.