The characters of Jean Pierre Melville’s drama of the French Resistance Army of Shadows are the living populating a world of death. They are operating in a world of classical tragedy, their fates are decided. These characters are not heroic “good guys” trying to pull off an epic operation to end the war, they are struggling to stay alive. They are flawed people resisting as best they can during the German Occupation, hanging on to a slim hope for survival, or awaiting their inevitable demise. Following the film’s opening scene, a recreation of German soldiers marching past the Arc de Triomphe and down the Champs Élysées, a pervading sense of doom hangs over the picture. From Eric de Marsan’s haunting score to Melville’s cool color palate draining life from the people and landscapes alike, the film gives a feeling of uneasiness that doesn’t let go. Even after the film has ended. Adapted from the anecdotal novel by Joseph Kessel (also the writer of the source novel for Luis Buñuel’s Belle du Jour), Army has an episodic narrative that mostly follows Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura) leader of a small group of résistants; including Mathilde (Simone Signoret), Félix (Paul Crauchet), Jean-François (Jean-Pierre Cassel), Le Masque (Claude Mann), and Le Bison (Christian Barbier) and finally Gerbier’s boss Luc Jardie (Paul Meurisse). Lino Ventura was a rare actor. As powerful in moments of quiet and stillness as in chaos and action, it is easy to see why Melville wanted Ventura in the role despite the two men not being on speaking terms dating back to their previous film together, Le Deuxiemme Souffle. Ventura’s gravitas and physical presence are required for Gerbier. With little establishment of character, we see most of the movie’s characters early on in the film deferring to Gerbier. With Ventura, an explanation of why isn’t necessary. His imposing persona and quiet confidence make it plain, he is a man people would follow. This is made clear in the scene following Gerbier’s escape from German custody early in the film. What for me amounts to Army‘s defining scene, and the one that obliterates the idea that Melville was perpetuating the romantic myth of the Resistance is the killing of the man responsible for Gerbier beginning the film in a prison camp.
Following Gerbier’s escape he along with Félix pick up a young man named Donat. The scene of Donat’s execution is the film’s most brutal scene, and one of the two most powerful scenes in the film. Upon arriving to the house where the deed is to be done, Gerbier and Félix are informed that neighbors have moved in next door and that there is no silencer for the pistol. They search the kitchen for a knife, but only find towels. The men discuss how they now will kill Donat, while the young man cowers in the corner as his death is decided upon. Finally Gerbier decides that Donat is to be strangled with the towels, and despite the objections of the other men Gerbier wills it to be done. It is devastating. Félix strangles the now gagged Donat, while the only sounds on the soundtrack is the crying and muffled shrieks of Donat while Félix stares blankly and Gerbier holds his legs Where most films would sanitize the execution of Donat, as to keep the audience firmly on the side of the “heroes,” Melville is uncompromising. The action of the death is ugly and uncomfortable. Donat’s muffled cries carry with you after viewing. Melville does not allow for a white washed version of the Resistance, he shows that even on the side of right, horrible acts were committed. This honesty, combined with Melville’s direction and the power Ventura’s and Crauchet’s acting makes the scene unforgettable.
As good as Ventura is in the film, Simone Signoret as Mathilde, may be better. Signoret here is middle aged, past her 1950’s sex symbol status. Throughout the film Mathilde seems the most capable operative, and the most brazen. It is Mathilde that takes the most risks. Going out in disguise, and to the German prison to plan the escape for Félix and taking part in the attempted prison break. She also takes the biggest, and ultimately most costly risk: carrying a photo of her daughter. She is captured by the Germans and they use the daughter as leverage to force her to divulge information. Melville leaves it ambiguous as to whether or not Mathilde reveals anything to the Nazis, but it does not matter. In a clandestine world the chance cannot be taken. She must die, and those closest to her pull the trigger. From Silien and Maurice in Le doulos to Alain Delon not being able to pull the trigger in Le samourai, in Melville’s world of hyper masculinity, there is no use for emotion and sentimentality. They can only lead to death. Nor is there use for any kind of recognizable real world femininity. Despite charges of misogyny, his 60’s films in particular, Melville’s late films exhibit more of an asexuality than a hatred towards women. Signoret’s Mathilde is part of the increasingly sexless women of Melville’s late period. The women become “one of the guys”, to the point that by his next film Melville had no female characters of consequence. In her great study Jean-Pierre Melville: An American in Paris Ginette Vincendeau says: “Despite the erasure of her sexuality, and despite her courage as an agent…Mathilde’s femininity makes her the weakest link: against Gerbier’s express advice she keeps a picture of her daughter, providing a point of vulnerability that leads to her death and possibly that of others.” Ultimately, the killing of Mathilde is a futile murder. Following her death, title cards give us the fate of the men in the car. None survive the war.
Upon the film’s release in the United States it received near universal acclaim from American critics. Sandwiched, chronologically, between his two late period masterpieces Le Samourai and Le Cercle Rouge, Army of Shadows was held in the same regard. Amy Taubin in Criterion’s release called it “Elegant, brutal, anxiety-provoking, and overwhelmingly sad,” Newsweek’s David Ansen named it the best foreign film of the year, and in The Chicago Reader Jonathan Rosenbaum said ” I didn’t even want to admit at first that it’s a great film, but now I think it may be Melville’s best.” The best summation of Army of Shadows, one quoted by Taubin in her Criterion essay, may be in Roger Ebert’s Great Movie essay: “Rarely has a film shown so truly that place in the heart where hope lives with fatalism.” The praise was also noteworthy in that the film wasn’t shown in America for 27 years following its French release. Released in France on September 12, 1969, residual effects of the May ’68 uprisings, rejection of DeGaulle and the World War II generation by the youth culture, and the continuing move to the political far left by a majority of French intellectuals (to Maoism of all things) helped conspire to keep Army of Shadows unseen on this side of the Atlantic. At the time, the sway of French film journal Cahiers du cinema over American art house film programmers was quite strong. And in Cahiers, Jean-Louis Comolli gave it a particularly scathing review, referring to it as “the first and greatest example of Gaullist film art.” (In 1998 Cahiers devoted an issue to reappraising the work of Melville, acknowledging the great director he was.) However contrary to this reading of the film and contrary to many other Resistance dramas of the time, Is Paris Burning? in particular, Army of Shadows is a somber and unromantic look at the Resistance. And a powerful masterpiece of French cinema.
Jean-Pierre Melville (1917-1973) made thirteen films in his career, following his own time in the Resistance and the Free French Army. Many of which are, or have been available through Criterion including Army of Shadows, Le samourai, Le deuxiemme souffle, Le cercle rouge, Les enfants terrible, Leon Morin, Preist, Le doulos, Bob le Flambeur, and Silence de la mer.
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