Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? A whole Army of Shadows knows, Judge Dylan Charles says.
"Unhappy memories! Yet I welcome you. You are my long-lost youth."—Courteline
Jean-Pierre Melville's Army of Shadows was savaged by the French critics, then ignored by the public for nigh on 39 years. It was only in 2006 that it finally arrived in the United States. And it was definitely worth the wait.
Facts of the Case
In 1942, German occupying force has France firmly under control. It has been years since the Germans first invaded and now things are growing ever bleaker. The French Resistance continues the fight against the occupiers, doing whatever it can to hinder the Germans.
Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura) is the leader of one small group, with several men and women under his charge: his second-in-command, Felix (Paul Crauchet); the resourceful and intelligent Mathilde (Simone Signoret); Le Masque (Claude Mann) and Le Bison (Christian Barbier), his assassins; and Jean-Francois (Jean-Pierre Cassel), a courier of sorts. It is through Gerbier's eyes, though, that we see both the trials of living under the German occupation and the efforts of the Resistance.
It doesn't take long to see that Melville's film about the French Resistance in 1942 is not a typical war film. Melville carefully draws the audience into the world of the French Resistance movement of World War II. Eschewing explosive action set pieces, idealistic coloring of the Resistance, and over-the-top melodrama, Melville has instead kept the film firmly grounded in realty. Army of Shadows has no interest in glorifying the men and women who worked under cover of darkness to harass the Germans. Instead, he pulls back the curtain, shining light into their cloak-and-dagger world. Melville himself was a member of the Resistance; this was his third and last film on the subject.
Rather than a single continuous story, we're treated to a series of missions and events dealing with a single group. This group is led by Gerbier, skillfully acted by Lino Ventura. Gerbier is a man weighed down with decisions who refuses to show his weakness in front of his subordinates, save one instance. It takes near-death and imprisonment to break down his emotional barrier, providing Ventura's best moment in the film as he reveals Gerbier's broken state. We follow Gerbier for the most part because it is his narration that ties together the film, although other members of his group do take up the narrative baton. Jean-Francois talks of his brother and visits him in his Paris home. His brother turns out to be the chief of the French Resistance. Both are members of the same organization, but are completely unaware of it.
The shades of gray are important here. At times, the Resistance acts in a way that made me cringe. The murder of the traitor, for instance, was blackly humorous and tragic at the same time. Army of Shadows is hardly ever explicit. There is torture, but only the aftereffects are shown on screen. People are killed, but in a bloodless way. Still, the deaths are weightier than in most films—not because of excessive gore, but because of the emotional effect it has on the people. When dealing with the traitor, the Resistance members are upset, reluctant, and horrified, yet they are completely willing to ignore these feelings in order to kill this man.
At times, the Resistance seems less like it's actively fighting the Nazis and more like it's doing whatever it can do just to survive. These fighters spend as much time tracking down traitors and breaking out of prison as they do delivering radio transmitters and passing along coded messages.
In the end, Melville has depicted the Resistance not as great heroes of World War II, but as desperate people doing what they can to avoid capture, torture, and death.
The transfer is clean and clear, free of dust and scratches. Criterion has, once again, done a damn fine job of bringing a great yet neglected film to the forefront.
The extras are of the same caliber. The commentary is by film historian Ginette Vincendeau, who gives a greater analysis of Army of Shadows than I ever could. Her breakdown of Melville's messages and themes, and the information she gives on the historical background of the film itself is insightful and well worth listening to.
Most of the remaining extras are documentaries and shorts about the director, Jean-Pierre Melville. The two interviews with both his editor and cinematographer are fairly illuminating but, really, if you have even cursory interest in Melville, you should check out the second disc.
There is also a subsection that deals with the Resistance itself. There is an interview with a former leader of the Resistance and a television show that gives more information about the nature of French guerrillas. The last and most interesting short is entitled "Le journal de la Resistance" and, though I do not speak French, I'm gonna take a whack at this and say that it's "The Journal of the Resistance." It's a documentary made by cameramen during the last days of the German occupation of France, showing the Resistance in action.
Army of Shadows takes a long, hard look at the Resistance and what it felt had to be done. It is Melville's focus on realism and his shelving of sentimentality that give the film its power. Anyone who loves the works of John Le Carre will find a lot to like here, and the disc itself makes this a definite buy.
Army of Shadows is found not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary by Film Historian Ginette Vincendeau
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