In 1969, celebrated French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Melville (Bob le Flambeur, Le Samouraï) released Army of Shadows, a bleak World War II epic that follows a small group of men involved in the French Resistance. At the time, it received a tepid response in his home country and never reached these shores. Now, 37 years later, the carefully restored film has finally come stateside. While it's not quite the masterpiece many critics make it out to be, it is an impressive example of the director's mastery of mood and style.
Melville uses film noir affectations to create heroes who are humorless and tough as nails; they're ordinary men who joylessly cling to their duties and loyalties, ruthlessly executing anyone reckless or foolish enough to compromise their mission.
The film opens as Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura), a bespectacled and middle-aged engineer, is delivered to a prison camp for seemingly no reason. Tossed in with captured military officers, it's clear this unassuming man doesn't belong. Brought to Gestapo headquarters for interrogation, Gerbier sees an opportunity for escape; he kills the guard, races down the street and ducks into a barbershop. From stab to shave, Melville executes the action with icy, tense precision.
We soon learn that rumpled Gerbier is actually the head of a Resistance faction in Marseilles. His stone-faced colleagues include Le Bison (Christian Barbier) and Le Masque (Claude Mann); underground fighters who are kindred spirits to the cynical hoods and thugs that populate Melville's gangster dramas. They operate with the same passionless dedication and strict code of ethics: Planning attacks, eluding the authorities, setting up clandestine meetings.
Along with the steel-eyed veterans is new recruit Francois (Jean-Pierre Cassel), Mathilde (Simone Signoret), and the group's mysterious leader, Luc Jardie (Paul Meurisse). Convinced that the others could betray them at any moment, the guerrillas work side by side but without fellowship.
Melville himself was involved in the French underground, and he pushes aside the romantic notions of opposition to deliver an authentic depiction of the Resistance as an organization ruled by friendless paranoia.
What may be difficult for modern American audiences to embrace is the film's lack of character development or exposition. Melville seems to have no interest in actually telling a story; instead, his film is a series of perilous but mostly unconnected episodes. The rebels rarely achieve victory and never seem to damage the enemy, and Melville depicts a world where the best his men can hope for is to hold their ground. It's an intellectual approach that some may find unsatisfying.
Though many of the fighters' operations are constructed like the exciting criminal heists in his noir films, Melville fills Army of Shadows with a sense of isolation and dread. His characters never get a moment to bond or celebrate a mission's success, and the romantic code of honor among thieves has been replaced by the unforgiving rules of survival.
Nothing illustrates Melville's fatalistic outlook better than an early scene where Gerbier and his men, unable to use a gun or find a knife, execute a traitorous young colleague with a bath towel. Gerbier's unflagging certainty in his actions makes clear that war requires individuals, on both sides, to embrace brutality. Discussing their murderous options in front of the sobbing victim, Melville demonstrates with an almost macabre sense of humor, the moral ambiguity of a world where being executed by your comrades is preferable to being killed by your enemy.
In French with English subtitles. Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Sept. 15-16, at 4 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 17. Call 313-833-3237.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].