Must-See 500: Army of Shadows

A single shot from "Army of Shadows" demonstrates both the resolute bleakness of this Resistance tale, as well as the wondrous precision of Melville's framing.

It’s time to re-visit a feature I haven’t updated in a long time: my list of 500 indispensable film classics, the best of the best. Theoretically I was supposed to write a retro-review every time I caught up with something on the list, but yeah, that didn’t happen. Oops. But hey, it’s my blog. My rules. And I’ve decided that I will only post these reviews when I feel particularly inspired to do so. Like now.

Jean-Pierre Melville is not a household name like Jean-Luc Godard or François Truffaut, but his films were a crucial precursor to the French New Wave of the 1960’s. His minimalist, realist style of filmmaking and insistence on using real locations rather than filming in studios were a major influence on his New Wave disciples. It was also Melville who suggested to the young Godard, who was having difficulty editing his debut “Breathless,” that he should just jump to the best parts of each shot, resulting in the film’s famously frantic pace.

His 1969 film “Army of Shadows,” which follows a group of French Resistance operatives during WWII, was torn apart by French critics for its supposed glorification of Charles de Gaulle, who had fallen out of political favor by the late 60’s. As a result, the film wasn’t released in the United States, and remained shelved for almost 40 years before finally being restored and re-released in 2006 (where it proceeded to make numerous critics’ annual top 10 lists). After finally catching up with the film myself, it seems absurd that such an unromantic, bleakly matter-of-fact film should be accused of being right-wing propaganda. Yes, the Resistance fighters are clearly meant to be seen as heroic, and de Gaulle himself makes a brief appearance to reward one of the leaders for his bravery. But it’s hard to imagine a film any less politicized; “Army of Shadows” is the Resistance experience stripped down to the bare bones of loyalty, fear and survival.

The narrative of Melville’s film is not quite episodic, but neither is there any particular arc: there is no daring climactic operation, no grand blow to the Nazi war machine, no sentimental epiphanies of character. There is only the constant grind of sacrifice and risk as this small Resistance cell struggles to keep itself alive. Indeed, perhaps the most extraordinary detail of “Army of Shadows” is that one – count him, one – German soldier is killed in the entire film. For the most part, these people are just running in place, acting purely out of self-preservation. Not that I think this is meant to diminish the heroism of the Resistance operatives, mind you; it simply presents the most unmerciful, unromantic, fatalist depiction of heroism I’ve ever seen. The film’s main character, the head of the Marseilles Resistance network Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura), at one point quietly declares “Do what must be done,” and it is by this philosophy that the members of the Resistance live, and often die. Whether it means swallowing a cyanide pill, strangling an informant or gunning down one of your best friends, the action itself is of no consequence: it must be done, and it will be done.

And in that philosophy of compulsion and instinct, Melville demonstrates how the reality of war robs the Resistance of not only its romanticism, but much of its dignity. Incidentally captured by the Germans during a routine food-rationing arrest, Gerbier is forced to participate in a Nazi officer’s sadistic game: several prisoners are lined up in front of a machine gun, about a hundred feet away from the opposite wall. The prisoners are told to run, and if any of them can reach the wall before being shot down, that man earns his life…or, more precisely, he earns the right to live until the next game. Mentally, Gerbier refuses to participate in this cruel display, but after a few warning shots at his feet, Gerbier is scurrying down the corridor, the desperate, defenseless fear clear on his face. In an unlikely but brilliant turn of events, Gerbier’s comrades choose that exact moment to launch their rescue mission, tossing several smoke grenades into the corridor to block the Germans’ vision and allowing Gerbier to clamber to safety. The pride-shattering irony of the moment is obvious even to Gerbier, who wonders aloud, “And what if I hadn’t run?” It is intellectually confounding, meticulously constructed scenes such as this that make “Army of Shadows” an unquestionable masterpiece.

From a technical perspective alone, “Army of Shadows” is bone-chilling in its understated perfection. The color scheme is universally cool (as in blues, grays, and greens, not as in awesome – though it is that, too), matching the quiet, clandestine nature of the Resistance and its members. Melville’s highly observational camera is often in motion, but it is a slow, precise movement that reflects the methodical, calculating mentality of Gerbier and his compatriots. And while Ventura stands out in his portrayal of Gerbier (as brave, hard-fighting, and engaging a hero as has ever been put on screen, if not so openly charismatic as most), the entire cast just feels right – from Simone Signoret’s equally determined Mathilde, to Claude Mann as the young and (initially) eager Le Masque, to Jean-Pierre Cassel (Vincent Cassel’s father, whose looks and body language are both frighteningly close to his son’s) as the brash, handsome former pilot Jean-François.

Melville was himself a member of the French Resistance (born Jean-Pierre Grumbach, “Melville” was in fact his Resistance pseudonym), which probably accounts for the lack of sentimentality and idealism in this stunningly forthright account. In any case, it is a most fitting tribute to the men and women of the Resistance, an homage to their intrepid courage that refuses to glorify the nasty and shocking actions they had to perform, however necessary they were.

Verdict: 4 out of 4 stars, an absolute must-see (though obviously a bit of a downer)

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