dark 'Army' is both personal and powerful
I welcome you anyway: You are my long-lost
The epigraph that opens ``Army of Shadows"
presumably comes from the movie's source, Joseph
Kessel's 1943 French Resistance memoir ``Les
Armée des Ombres." Make no mistake,
though -- this is director Jean-Pierre Melville
speaking from his wounded heart.
The appearance of a Melville film in these
parts is always an event. The filmmaker (1917-1973)
presaged the French New Wave with gangster
movies like ``Bob Le Flambeur" (1955)
that are breathtaking displays of existential
cool; such later works as ``Le Samourai"
(1967) and ``Le Cercle Rouge" (1970)
are just about perfect in their commingling
of sin and Zen.
``Army of Shadows" was made in
1969, between those two cinematic peaks, but
it's a different film entirely: a long, realistic,
unbearably sad Resistance drama in which the
stakes are as high as they are unspoken. If
heroes in other Melville movies struggle against
fate, they fight a known enemy here. The characters
are plainspoken and average-looking, given
to the noble gesture because to do otherwise
would be to just give in. Their heroism requires
acts of savagery, though, and that's the harder
fact to confront.
One of the early scenes in ``Army of Shadows"
involves the murder of a traitor to the
cause -- a young man whose family was in all
likelihood threatened by the Nazis -- and as
the Resistance cell members circle him in a
quiet Marseilles apartment, they realize that
none of them has murdered before. It's an awful
sequence, and it needs to be, because this
is what separates these men from the Germans:
For them, killing another person is an unimaginably
The leader of the Marseilles group is Philippe
Gerbier (Lino Ventura), a middle-age man who
was a civil engineer before the Occupation
and who looks it. As soon as we meet him, in
a German POW camp where the commandant has
no idea who he has captured, we see that Gerbier
has the practiced eye of his profession, looking
everywhere for weaknesses and leverage. Does
he knowingly sacrifice another man to the Nazis
so he can make his escape? It's unclear even
to Gerbier, and, anyway, contingency is everything.
Back on the streets, he reconnects with other
members of his organization: Felix (Paul Crauchet),
who loathes the bowler hat he wears to blend
in with the crowd; sensitive muscleman Le Bison
(Christian Barbier); new recruits Jean (Jean-Pierre
Cassel) and Le Masque (Claude Mann), the former
capable and quiet, the latter enthusiastic
They're eventually joined by Mathilde (Simone
Signoret), a patisserie owner who becomes as
important as Gerbier to the operation's smooth
running. Their missions are small but crucial
-- a delivery of radio parts under the noses
of Nazis and Vichy officials, rowing a Resistance
leader (Paul Meurisse) to a waiting submarine
-- and the sense is that they're willing pieces
of an invisible machine that doesn't always
behave logically or fairly.
``Army of Shadows" is as dark as
its title implies, shot by Pierre Lhomme and
Walter Wottitz in a drained, sickly blue-gray.
Like other Melville films, it avoids melodrama
and sticks to the facts; the dialogue is terse
and functional. This is a hushed, undecorated
cinema, because decoration stands out and standing
out gets you killed.
Chances are you'll be killed anyway. Fatalism
hangs over these characters, some of whom wonder
what they'll do when the moment of death comes.
One even finds out -- he thinks, randomly,
of a pretty girl he saw at a party once --
and then, just as randomly, is saved, probably
to die another day.
As coolly filmed as ``Army" is,
it's a personal work. Melville, who fought
with the Resistance before joining the Free
French Forces in England, uses another man's
novel in the same way Roman Polanski used another
man's life in ``The Pianist," and
for the same reasons: to provide a framework
for memories that would be too painful on their
own. The results bear witness to a time when
sacrifice was bleached of everything but itself.
Ty Burr can be reached
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