Friday, January 3, 2020

The Films of Jean-Pierre Melville: Army of Shadows (1969)

Army of Shadows (1969) 
Directed by: Jean-Pierre Melville.
Written by: Jean-Pierre Melville based on the novel by Joseph Kessel.
Starring: Lino Ventura (Philippe Gerbier), Paul Meurisse (Luc Jardie), Jean-Pierre Cassel (Jean François Jardie), Simone Signoret (Mathilde), Claude Mann (Claude Ullmann dit 'Le Masque'), Paul Crauchet (Felix Lepercq), Christian Barbier (Guillaume Vermersch dit 'Le Bison'), Serge Reggiani (The hairdresser), André Dewavrin (Colonel Passy), Alain Dekok (Legrain), Alain Mottet (Commander of the camp), Alain Libolt (Paul Dounat), Jean-Marie Robain (Baron de Ferte Talloire).
Army of Shadows is perhaps the film that best exemplifies the very different reactions that director Jean-Pierre Melville received during his life, and what happened when his work was rediscovered in the years after he died. Army of Shadows was barely seen in 1969 – it was denounced in France as being right-wing Gaullist, and retrograde, and never made it out of the country. When the film was restored and released into American theaters for the first time in 2006, it was rightly hailed as the masterpiece that it is. Like much of Melville, the timing was off for him to get the credit he deserved during his life – but at least we can correct that now.
The film is about the French Resistance during WWII, something Melville knew all too well because he was a part of it. This is not a film of excitement and action, raids and spy craft however – it has some of all of that of course, but the bulk of its runtime is made up of the tense everyday experiences that members of the resistance lived through – knowing the whole time they were likely to die, but doing it all anyway. They were anonymous and secretive – brothers don’t even know that they are both a member of the same group – and being arrested probably meant death – but it could also mean betrayal, and you were never quite sure who to trust. Melville basically turns the film into an unbearably intent two-and-a-half hour waiting game – when what everyone is waiting for is death.
The main character here is Phillippe Gerbier – played by Lino Ventura, who had been great in Melville’s Le Deuxième Souffle three years prior. Like all great Melville leads, Gerbier is a man of few words, who are defined by his actions more than anything else, and played in a calm, almost flat style that Melville preferred – you will never see someone overact in a Melville film. He has been arrested when the film opens, taken from one anonymous room by German guards after another – he knows in one of these rooms, he will be killed eventually – and he devises a crude and simple escape – he literally just runs when given the chance. The whole film may be summarized in the scene where after his escape, he ducks into a barbershop for a shave. This is suspicious of course – it’s night time, you almost wonder why the barber is even open. The two men barely say a word, and when he goes to leave, the barber gives him a different overcoat. Both men know what this was, but don’t say a word about it.
There is a plot in Army of Shadows – but not much of one. The Germans are barely seen in the film, and whatever the resistance is doing on a day-to-day basis is not something that Melville really dives into. The film is more about just the day-to-day will or survival – that winning means surviving another day, even though you know you will not win forever. When Gerbier is arrested again, he and others are led into a yard, where the Germans tell them all that they will be given a chance to run – make it to the wall first and you’ll be killed with the next group of prisoners, instead of this one. Gerbier isn’t sure if he should even run – if he should give them the satisfaction of running. But of course he runs. They all run.
Eventually more characters start to emerge. Melville favorite Paul Meurisse as the head of the resistance – at least this small chapter. The great Simone Signoret as Mathilde, the only woman in the group, and held in such high regard by everyone that they speak of her almost reverently. The closing scenes in the film hurt then, because we know that as much as they were all prepared for death – and how what they do is necessary – how much it still hurts to have to do it.
In many ways, Army of Shadows is an odd film for Melville – it’s one of the only films he made that you could describe as political at all, although I’m not sure it really is. Calling the film right wing and Gaullist as it was at the time seems odd – the film hard exposes political thought at all. What it is about, really, is what many Melville films are about when you strip away the genre trapping – existential dread. The feeling that death is around the corner, and you cannot stop it, may not even want to. The feeling of never being sure who you can trust, as soon or later, someone is bound to betray you – if you don’t betray them first. Melville makes you sit in that tension for the entire runtime – he doesn’t let his characters, or his audience, ever get relief from that tension. The film is, quite simply, a masterpiece.

No comments:

Post a Comment