Army of Shadows
1969Director: Jean-Pierre Melville
Cast: Lino Ventura, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Simone Signoret
t may come as no surprise that Army of Shadows arrives with the tagline “the best reviewed movie of the year.” If anything, it serves as retribution for the underserved neglect it received upon its initial release in France. This film, doomed to obscurity for three decades, represents the holy grail of Jean-Pierre Melville’s oeuvre, the hidden gem that never made it to America until now. If The Da Vinci Code has unjustly assumed the role of the most talked-about film of the year, then surely Army of Shadows deserves the dignified rank of the most lauded film of 2006. While it may be swept to the periphery by the hyperbole surrounding The Code, Melville’s film will hopefully garner enough critical respect to divert a few heads.
The film, based on the novel by Joseph Kessel (who also wrote the novel upon which Belle de Jour was based) tells the story of those unfortunate members of the French Resistance who gave up their homes, family, identities, and safety to fight for the freedom of their country. They live under aliases, dissolving into the city when danger presents itself, fighting against a unified terror as an army displaced from their land and individuals set adrift in the city with no true existence. So concealed are their investments that two brothers fighting for the same cause serve out their duty while unaware of the other’s affiliation with the Resistance.
For those who, like me, know Melville through his hard-edged gangster films like Bob Le Flambeur and Le Cercle Rouge, Shadows may strike one as a severe departure from the cool detachment of those works. To some extent, that rings true since the film represents his most personal endeavor, Melville himself being affiliated with the French Resistance. The film retains the foreboding silence and meticulous attention to detail present in his other films, but amplifies the level of emotional investment in its characters, making it the most intense film of his career. Where in his other works Melville hones in on a single, sometimes emotionally reserved, anti-hero, Shadows disperses its attention amongst an array of characters. If, as a result, the film’s pacing feels a bit disorienting, I’d argue that was the intended effect. The war the French fought during the Occupation was itself without a unified core. Melville accurately depicts their world as one of impermanence, both in sanctuary and alliances.
The opening scenes introduce us to Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura) already captured by the Nazis and en route to internment at a prison camp. He mingles with the other prisoners but never grows attached. He makes plans to escape with a younger prisoner, a communist—barely an adult and already thrust into such a disposition—but fate intervenes as the Nazis transport Philippe unexpectedly to another location where he must devise a new escape plan, unbeknownst to his would-be friend, left behind in the prison.
In his new surroundings, Philippe sizes up his situation, devising an impromptu plan. His escape from the clutches of certain death involves the sacrifice of another prisoner as a decoy; an unknown man he has only just met, not long enough to even learn his name. Does he second-guess his decision? As he flees, he pauses briefly at the sound of distant gunfire, surely the sound signifying the untimely end of the anonymous prisoner, but Philippe saw his opportunity, and since the Nazis have rendered human life valueless, he has no choice but to take it or suffer the same fate.
This moral ambiguity and the sacrifice it requires becomes the pervasive theme of the film, raising the question of just how far these freedom fighter are willing to take it. Once Philippe escapes, his first duty after reuniting with his compatriots is to eliminate a traitor who ratted out names of members of the Resistance. In a scene of immense emotional weight, they must strangle him to death, confessing beforehand that they have never done anything like this before. The film confronts death on the most intimate of terms. We never witness scenes of indiscriminate killing; it’s a war film, and certainly that could have been a potential route. Instead, each death carries with it its own gravity, affecting not only all who appear on screen, but those witnessing it in the theater.
Such is the recurrent tone of Army of Shadows, which depicts the war at its most dismal. In a Hollywood film, the course would be far different. For one, we’d be introduced to a clear-cut villain—perhaps a loquacious German general that gives a face to the enemy—where Melville opts for the faceless masses of Nazi soldiers. When a member of their band is captured, our heroes would devise escape plans that succeed despite all logic. Conversely, Melville illustrates that, more often than not, such plans do not prevail. Additionally, that film would avoid all the potential complications that would arise from their ties to one another, but Melville leads us down dark paths that offer no easy relief from their struggle. A person who saved a life one day may betray the cause the next. Considering their previous aid, do they deserve a reprieve now or does duty bind one to eliminate them regardless of the bonds formed? Melville brilliantly leaves that dilemma for the audience to determine.
Jean-Pierre Melville was a director struck down far too young, at the height of his talent, dying only five years after completing this film. Considering that his final three films—this one, Le Samourai and Le Cercle Rouge—rank among the best in cinema, there’s no telling what he would have been capable of if he were allowed even a decade more of creativity. Those who claim any devotion to cinema can’t afford to overlook this. After all, the last thing a film this superb deserves is to dissolve into the shadows yet again. If history has taught us to identify past errors, surely this is one wrong that can finally be set right.
Army of Shadows is playing in selected theaters across the country now.