Film Reviews

Army of Shadows Jean-Pierre Melville

Rating - 10/10

In 1969, French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Melville released his latest and most personal film Les Armée des Ombres (Army of Shadows), an adaptation of an autobiographical novel by exiled French novelist Joseph Kessel, who also had authored Belle de Jour directed by Luis Buñuel in 1967. Centering on Kessel’s own experiences and exploits as a member of the French Resistance, the novel intrigued Melville for the best part of a quarter-century.

The Occupation of France was not a new cinematic subject for Melville. Both his second feature The Silence of the Sea (1949) and Léon Morin, Priest (1965) were set during the Occupation. However, Army of Shadows was Melville’s first extensive attempt at analyzing the Resistance movement from within. Unfortunately for Melville, the timing of the film’s initial release was nothing short of terrible.

In May 1968, a series of leftist student protests and strikes brought Gaullist France to its knees. While order and government were eventually restored, the reputation of French President Charles de Gaulle was left in tatters. No longer viewed as France’s saviour, the former leader of the Free French Forces became a despised public figure. Cultural cracks in the mythology of de Gaulle and the French Resistance began to appear: emerging in their most potent and controversial form via Franco-German documentarian Marcel Ophüls’ epic 1969 film The Sorrow and the Pity, which forever destroyed longstanding public perceptions about the wartime occupation of France, the resistance and collaboration.

In this fiery, politicized climate, neither the right-wing supporting Melville, nor his film were well-received by an increasingly radicalized and unsympathetic film press led by the influential auteurist film journal Cahiers du Cinema. Despite its expensive budget and well-respected domestic cast, the film underperformed at the box office and failed to receive an official American release for almost forty years. Today, seperated from the political turmoil surrounding its initial release, Melville’s film emerges not as the pro-Gaullist vehicle his critics agitated against, but rather an engaging and historically credible account of French underground paramilitary groups during the Second World War.

Subtle and understated, Army of Shadows bears many of Melville’s aesthetic and structural hallmarks. Shot in varying shades of brown, green and blue, Army of Shadows is a somber and blunt analysis of the inner workings of the Resistance. Set in 1942, the film is centered around the actions of four principal characters led by Lino Ventura’s Philippe Gernier, a stocky and non-descript civil engineer, who happens to be a key player in a local Resistance movement in Vichy France. Captured by the Gestapo and transported to Paris, Gernier miraculously escapes his interrogators and flees to Marseille where he seeks revenge against his youthful betrayer. 

Slowly snaking through the subversive inner sanctum of the Resistance, Melville gently introduces the film's other key Resistance members. The first is Jean-François Jardie (Jean-Pierre Cassel) a former fighter pilot, who joins the Resistance for its risks; the second is Mathilde (Simone Signoret), a housewife who enters the Resistance without her family’s acknowledgement; the final character is Luc (Paul Meurisse) a scholarly philosopher and key leader in the Resistance. For the majority of the film's 145 minute running time, Melville focuses on the interplay and changing relationships between these characters within a short period of time.

 In contrast to typical fictionalized studies of the French Resistance such as Michael Curtiz’s Passage to Marseille (1944),there are no great heroic action sequences documentating Resistance members destroying German machinations of war in explosive scenes of patriotism. Interestingly, Melville's film offers scant coverage involving combat within the foreign enemy. In a reversal of genre conventions, Melville tends to focus on intra-Resistance conflicts, purges and acts of bludgeoning. Intrinsically linked to violent manifestations of fear, Melville's meticulously assembled action sequences are wonderfully slow-burning in their comportment.

Nor, unlike many other war films documenting French military forces, does Melville create a picture awash in French nationalism. The members of the Resistance in Melville’s film are a collective joined by shared sensibilities and assembled from a variety of socio-economic and socio-cultural backgrounds such as Catholics, Communists, academics and the bourgeoisie. The reasons behind joining the movement are as sketchy and murky as the clandestine network itself. Some are inclined to join due their anti-Fascist beliefs, others for the danger associated with the work.

Like Howard Hawks' protagonists, Melville's heroes are primarily sustained by their professional involvement in their cause. His characters are driven by an overarching, tacit sense of duty and a collective adherence to the principles of the movement. Subsequently, throughout Army of Shadows, the Resistance and its symbolic manifestations take priority over familial relationships and friendships. Consequently, an outward coldness resonates throughout Melville’s film. Nevertheless, It is a sensation based on fact, rather than romanticized notions of the Resistance experience.

Like the character of Jef Costello in Melville’s neo-Noir film Le Samouraï (1967), the protagonists in Army of Shadows are deeply inset into their parameters of their vocational profession. They are individuals residing in the present without past biographies or future plans. Their actions require little explanation and are absconded from guilt. A unique sense of morals and operational codes of conduct, separate from those of the outside world, become their law.

The fraternal bonds linked in Army of Shadows are hardened through implicit glances and unsaid acts of mutual understanding, yet are briskly undone by moments of treachery. In contrast to the film’s beautifully ponderous and tense narrative structure, the film’s characters retributive response to treason is devastatingly clear-cut. Betrayal, whether intentional or not, is quickly managed through often brutal and instinctive methods.

Featuring an impeccably brooding score by Éric Demarsan and murky cinematography by Walter Wottitz and Pierre L’Homme, Jean-Pierre Melville’s Army of Shadows is a war film aesthetically and contextually different than most of its peers. Drenched in loneliness and abstractions, Army of Shadows is an incredibly gritty and powerful work of art: a historical film that feels palpable and genuine in its outlook and foundations.

A rare of fusion of action and authenticity, Melville’s film works through the director’s objectivity, which enables even the film’s protagonists to espouse a sinister quality. Sadly, the film’s perceived critical and commercial failure undoubtedly abetted Melville’s return to his neo-Noir roots in his final two films, Le Cercle Rouge (1970) and Un Flic (1972). Nevertheless, this savagely brilliant historical drama is perhaps his masterpiece through its astute performances, unflinching direction and detached analysis of one of the darkest chapters in modern French history.

A pièce de résistance in more ways than one.