By then he had already directed two other films
about the war, along with some of the thrillers
for which he is justly renowned, like "Bob
le Flambeur." But he clearly wasn't
finished with the fight of his life and not
long after making he exclaimed, "The war period was awful,
horrible ... marvelous."
The same can be said of "Army of Shadows,"
which is bleak and beautiful by turns, that
rare work of art that thrills the senses and
the mind. Lino Ventura plays Philippe Gerbier,
a Resistance fighter who has willingly surrendered
his entire being to the cause. (Much as Melville
surrendered to cinema.) The film opens with
Gerbier's imprisonment in a concentration camp
and, shortly thereafter, his escape from his
captors. Exciting if implausible, the escape
seems almost an afterthought to the scene immediately
after in which Gerbier hides in a barbershop.
Sitting in a chair with a face full of lather,
his throat to a strange blade, the escapee
seems cruelly vulnerable anew, the tension
abating only after the barber puts down his
razor and shows his true colors.
What makes the scene so memorable isn't only
the austere beauty of Melville's mise en scène
or the leaden silence that fills the room;
it's the unexpected intimacy between the men.
The actors say very little; as is often the
case in a Melville film, they don't have to.
Rather, they express everything you (and they)
need to know through the geometry of their
gazes, in the way Gerbier notices a Vichy sign
and how the barber never seems to catch the
other man's eye. Through the masculine ritual
of a barbershop shave, one of the few public
arenas in which men are permitted intimacy,
the two recognize each other both as Frenchmen
and as men. In this barbershop Gerbier is delivered
from barbarism back into civilization.
Melville's world is a world of broad shoulders
and heavy burdens, shaved and grizzled faces,
the civilized and the savage. It is a world
in which a man's hat is an emblem of his professionalism,
part of the armor he dons for battle. When
a Resistance member walks into a boîte
in "Army of Shadows," and
Melville shows us a row of Nazi caps neatly
lined on a shelf, it's as if he were showing
us a cache of weapons.
Later this same man will be whisked away by
the enemy and lose his own hat in the confusion.
The image of the hat lying in the street like
an upturned turtle is unexpectedly poignant
because we understand with fatal certitude
that the head that wore it will soon be no
Women don't play much of a role in this world,
though there are exceptions, including Melville's
film "Léon Morin, Prêtre,"
about a priest and the women who, in wartime,
cluster around him. This gender balance gave
Melville a bad rap among some feminists and
no doubt his more outrageous comments didn't
help. He once said that the American ideal
woman was "a female with a pair of buttocks
in her brassiere," which is both funny
and, given that he made this observation in
the 1950's, also true. Yet to fixate on his
arguable sexism is to ignore the women who
do appear in his films, like the fierce Resistance
fighter played by Simone Signoret in "Army
of Shadows," and, crucially, to miss
that the films are, at their core, studies
in troubled masculinity.
There may be psychosexual explanations for
why this is the case, but the war and France's
shame were reason enough. Melville, a Jew,
was serving in the military when France capitulated
to Germany, and he subsequently joined several
networks in the Resistance. Decades later,
while discussing "Army of Shadows," he pointedly noted, "Don't forget that
there are more people who didn't work for the
Resistance than people who did." It's
no wonder feels
like a cold rejoinder to the cherished romance
of the French Resistance fighter, wearing a
beret and a sneer, and holding back the Nazi
tide that had already swept the country. Kessel
writes: "Today it is nearly always death,
death, death. But on our side we kill, kill,
kill." That is Melville's war.
originally released, a French critic wrote
that "this Resistance epic was, in the
end, a sublime thriller." Melville rejected
the comparison, even if it is also entirely
possible to see his sublime thrillers as epics
of resistance. The great man died in 1973 at
the unfair age of 55, collapsing into the arms
of a male friend. He left behind one short
film and 13 features, a few of which, including
"Army of Shadows," are worthy
of that overused superlative masterpiece.
This film, which was never released in America
and will now be making its way across the country
in limited release, has been immaculately restored
and features new subtitles. You can get lost
in the blackness of its heart and its shadows.
You might never come back.
Directed by Jean-Pierre
Melville; written (in French, with English
subtitles) by Melville, based on the novel
by Joseph Kessel; director of photography,
Pierre Lhomme; edited by Françoise Bonnot;
music by Éric de Marsan; art director,
Théobald Meurisse; produced by Jacques
Dorfmann; released by Rialto Pictures. In Manhattan
at the Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street,
South Village. Running time: 140 minutes. This
film is not rated.
WITH: Lino Ventura (Philippe Gerbier), Simone
Signoret (Mathilde), Paul Meurisse (Luc Jardie),
Jean-Pierre Cassel (François), Claude
Mann (Le Masque) and Paul Crauchet (Félix).