Indifferently received when it debuted in France, never before theatrically released in the United States, Jean-Pierre Melville's 1969 "Army of Shadows" stands revealed as a classic film that a trick of fate has made as relevant now as when it was made.
French director Melville is best known for haunting, totally individual gangster melodramas such as "Bob Le Flambeur" and the dazzling "Le Samourai." But his heart was in the trio of films he made about the transformative experience of his life, the years he spent in the French Resistance during World War II.
"Army of Shadows," taken from a memoir by Joseph Kessel (author of the novel that became Luis Buñuel's "Belle de Jour"), was Melville's third film with Resistance themes, one it took him 25 years to make. Released at a time of hostility to former Free French leader Charles de Gaulle, it became entangled in the political turmoil of the day, accused of glorifying and romanticizing the Resistance when in fact it does anything but. It's not that Melville doesn't believe his protagonists were heroes; he very much does. It's that this director's cool, reserved ideas of heroism were poles apart from the way films ordinarily portray it.
Masterfully made, with no detail unattended, "Army of Shadows" is a somber, reflective film. Though it has some of the trappings of Melville's thrillers, including clandestine meetings and fast cars, it is also a meditation on the nature of resistance and the price of courage.
"Army of Shadows" emphasizes the unheroic nature of heroism, its undramatic matter-of-factness. It gives a sense of the nerve-wracking combination of tension and boredom involved, of split-second life-and-death decisions, of the almost arbitrary nature of who survives and who does not.
In addition, "Army of Shadows" gives a sense of how savage and unrelenting the demands of wartime can be, and of how alone and hopeless those who act bravely can feel despite a shared bond of brotherhood and conviction. As we endure our latest national combat experience, it is essential to be reminded that the ostentatious heroism trumpeted by leaders is not necessarily the way it plays out on the ground.
Melville begins "Army of Shadows" with a bravura shot that looks especially good in the new 35-millimeter restoration distributed by Rialto Pictures. Simple in conception but spectacular in execution, it's a one-minute take the director called one of the two shots he was really proud of in his career.
With the unmoving camera focused on Paris' Arc de Triomphe, a distant column of German soldiers enters from the left and turns at the Arc to walk straight into the camera. Not only was it an almost impossible shot to get government approval for — actors in German uniforms were banned from the Champs-Élysées — its visual encapsulation of the trauma of occupation has an emotional power and resonance to which no description can do justice.
As monumental as the Arc is the performance of Melville regular Lino Ventura as protagonist Philippe Gerbier, a civil engineer we meet in October 1942, being transported to a prison camp. Always an actor of ferocious presence, Ventura seems to use the glasses he wears to rein himself in, to give the impression of a man of considerable mental and physical strength who must play things under wraps to function effectively as a resistant.
"Army of Shadows" is constructed as a series of set pieces conveying incidents that really happened and were conceived by Melville as symbolic of the range of Resistance activities.
So we have that time spent in the prison camp, a nail-biting escape from a hotel used as a German headquarters, even the clumsy but essential execution of a traitor by people who never imagined executing anyone would be part of their life experience. At a certain point, Simone Signoret enters the picture as the resourceful Mathilde, another compatriot.
As someone who was part of the Resistance, Melville knew enough to neither melodramatically glorify nor cynically devalue the heroism he presents. This is people doing what needed to be done, "Army of Shadows" says, this is the way it was.
'Army of Shadows'
MPAA rating: Unrated
A Rialto Pictures release, Director Jean-Pierre Melville. Screenplay by Melville, based on the memoir by Joseph Kessel. Director of photography Pierre Lhomme.
Running time 2 hours, 25 minutes.
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