Friday, November 30, 2007

Army of Shadows (1969)

Re-releases of old films are always interesting, especially when the film in question has never been seen in the United States before. Like the long-awaited re-release of Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate back in the 1980s, the premiere of French master filmmaker Jean-Pierre Melville’s Army of Shadows gives film fans the rare chance to see a classic film for the first time since it was made almost forty years ago. It’s like time travel on a small scale, allowing us as viewers to step back into the 1960s, or to bring this forgotten classic forward into the present day.

Army of Shadows centers on a group of underground agents of the French Resistance during World War Two. Melville, using the same hard-boiled style that worked to perfection in films like Le Circle Rouge and Bob Le Flambeur, keeps his characters forever at a distance, allowing them to blend in to the scenery as much as possible. Philippe Gerbier, a droll middle-aged man with a guarded demeanor, is the closest thing we have to a main character here. His narration is perhaps our only window into the inner workings of the characters’ minds-- their outside bearing being as nondescript as possible purely out of necessity. Through Gerbier we learn of the organization of his resistance group, which also includes the young Jean Francois, a female master of disguise called Mathilde, and “the Chief,” the boss of the group and a former professor of philosophy. The film follows them through their clandestine attempts to fight against the German occupation, which includes sending radio transmissions to the British, shuttling agents in and out of the country and finding ways to slow Hitler’s march through France to the English Channel.

Interestingly, Melville focuses less on the results and fruits of the Resistance fighters’ labor than on the extreme risks that they took and the terrible consequences of capture. We do not see many victories for our main characters, outside of eluding the Gestapo and a thrilling escape from a Nazi firing squad. What we do see is the characters’ anguish at having to kill members of their own who have turned traitor, or the desperation of men undergoing torture and imprisonment. The prevailing mood here is one of somberness-- Gerbier and his associates seem to know that they are forever one step away from the end but they fight on anyway. Melville, who fought in the Resistance himself, uses Army of Shadows not as a thriller or an espionage film, but as a eulogy to those that risked-- and often gave-- their lives to fight for their country. But his method is one of extreme subtlety. There are no grandiose speeches celebrating the glory of France or decrying the German occupiers. All the characters simply do their duty with a coolness that speaks louder than words. For them, the cause does not need to be articulated-- it’s simply the right thing to do. Likewise, the war itself often seems to be far away in Army of Shadows. In one particularly memorable scene Gerbier, in London to collect supplies from the British, finds himself caught in the middle of a bombardment by German aircraft. Ducking into the first door he sees-- that of the YMCA-- he is surprised to find young service men and women dancing and drinking as though the sounds of the Blitz were merely a thunderstorm.

The actual effects of the French Resistance are hard to calculate, though in recent years historians have claimed that the efforts of freedom fighters had an immeasurable impact on slowing the German invasion of Britain. For his part, Melville seems content to document the efforts of the special few who recognized the sacrifice that had to be made in the name of the greater good. This often meant losing friends, family, and livelihood-- the very things that one was fighting for-- a dichotomy that the film illustrates quite poetically in its heart-wrenching final moments. It’s quite strange that it has taken such an important film this long to be released in the United States. In an oeuvre that includes several great films, Army of Shadows may very well be Melville’s masterpiece.

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