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Review: In ‘Farewell, Mr. Haffmann,’ survival chafes against an erotic thriller’s contrivances

Two men at a desk have a discussion.
From left, Daniel Auteuil and Gilles Lellouche in the movie “Farewell, Mr. Haffmann.”
(Menemsha Films)
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Until “The Zone of Interest” upended the way of doing things, a commonly flexed method of approaching a Holocaust story was to time-capsule its good-vs.-evil realities, treating the scenario as rife with complexity. Essentially, the movie creates a that-was-then groundwork laced with doses of unease. What would you have done?

That classically structured approach — history mined for pockets of moral quagmire — may feel contrived in the wake of “Zone.” But it can still be an effective way to explore dangerous times and the French film “Farewell, Mr. Haffmann,” starring Daniel Auteuil as a Parisian Jew who falls into a trap, is one such engrossing if unwieldy example.

It’s 1941 and Auteuil’s Joseph Haffmann is a high-end jeweler who successfully gets his wife and three children out of France, intending to join them after staying a little longer to set in motion a plan to protect his livelihood. The scheme: He’ll “sell” the shop to his non-Jewish assistant Fran?ois (Gilles Lellouche), who would move into the Haffmanns’ upstairs apartment with his wife Blanche (Sara Giraudeau) and run the business. After a time, Joseph would return, re-assume ownership and help Fran?ois, a budding designer, start his own outfit.

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Joseph’s own escape from Paris, however, becomes too risky with increasing Nazi crackdowns, and he finds himself back in the shop, hiding in his own cellar. Fran?ois, a proud man with a bad leg and a chip on his shoulder, who’s been keener on this new arrangement than the apprehensive, docile wife with whom he’s desperate to start a family, counters with his own condition for his onetime boss, now one more soul in need of protection.

A woman waits in a cellar.
Sara Giraudeau in the movie “Farewell, Mr. Haffmann.”
(Menemsha Films)

The preposterous, near-farcical offer — one act of surrogacy for another — sounds like the kind of thing only a screenwriter would come up with, or in this case, a playwright, since it’s an adaptation of Jean-Philippe Daguerre’s French stage hit. Fran?ois will shield Joseph if he, in turn, helps his wife conceive. You can see it appealing to a writer’s desire for twinning themes, even if it also trivializes imbalanced vulnerabilities — one man’s literal survival against another’s bruised male ego — for the sake of extra tension in a wartime drama.

But because the movie is anchored by three capable actors, our eye-rolling subsides quickly enough so that the rest of the film can intensify the nerve-jangling consequences of its reversal of fortunes. At the center is Lellouche’s unflinching, bursting-at-the-seams portrayal of an aggrieved man curdled by ambition, Fran?ois transformed by his unearned bump in status into a callous collaborator. Auteuil, meanwhile, captures the deflating aura of a thoughtful man enduring a misplaced trust that could potentially mean his doom.

The corner mouse, however, is the one to watch: Giraudeau (the memorable rookie agent from France’s spy series “The Bureau”) nails the trickiest part, overcoming the ridiculous narrative device to emerge as the second half’s firmest source of light. Blanche’s loss of innocence seeds an interesting tension as the situation comes to a head. That it’s such an effective performance in a movie hindered by an editing style that too often favors forward motion over quality time with its stricken characters, makes it even more impressive.

In terms of visuals and period trappings, “Farewell, Mr. Haffmann” isn’t much more memorable than an upscale TV movie. It may not exhibit the subtle spatial flair that great filmmakers have been known to wring from constricted places, but it gets the claustrophobia right. And thanks to its actors, there’s a credibly heavy sense of the personal prisons within literal ones that only a wretched war can foster.

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'Farewell, Mr. Haffmann'

Not rated

In French and German with English subtitles

Running time: 1 hour, 56 minutes

Playing: Laemmle Royal, West Los Angeles; Laemmle Town Center, Encino

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