Film Review #107: Army of Shadows
Director: Jean-Pierre Melville
Cast: Simone Signoret, Lino Ventura, Paul Meurisse
Director Martin Scorcese called Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City, about World War II’s Italian Resistance, “the most precious moment in film history.” Who can forget Anna Magnani as Pina, dashing into that street, and her shattering fate? Rossellini’s film was made so soon after the 1945 liberation that Fascists still prowled some parts of Rome – this situation provided the surreal moment during filming of one street scene when riders on a passing bus stopped to rescue the characters being “attacked” by Gestapo. I recently watched Rome, Open City again and it scarcely seems possible to imagine vast territories of modern cinema without it.
Now another film belongs in the same league. I say “now” with qualification. It’s hard to explain what took so long for Jean-Pierre Melville’s legendary film about World War II’s French Resistance, Army of Shadows, to reach the United States. Last April, thanks to Film Forum’s programmer, Bruce Goldstein, Army of Shadows opened in New York City in a new 35 mm print, restored by its original cinematographer, Pierre Lhomme. So it was that – 37 years after premiering in France – Army of Shadows was voted Best Foreign Film of 2006 by the New York Film Critics Circle, and by year’s end was on many US reviewers’ overall top five. Though never in wide release – at most on seven screens in any one week – Army of Shadows was in US theaters continuously until late April 2007.
This film relates the activities, fortunes and dilemmas of a small French Resistance cell between October 20, 1942, when Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura), second to the shadowy chief, Luc Jardie (Paul Meurisse), is transported to a Vichy-run prison, and February 23, 1943, when Gerbier insists that the punishment for traitors must apply equally to his counterpart, the magnificent, brave and daring Mathilde (Simone Signoret). It’s set in Paris, Lyon, Marseilles and, briefly, the French Resistance’s London office, where the real head of that operation, Andre Dewavrin, plays himself in the film. Early, after Gerbier escapes from prison, he and three cell members capture the young man who betrayed Gerbier. It’s their first execution, they must strangle this pleading boy, and it’s almost too much for them. This execution is one half of a pair, and what a road these patriots travel by the time they reach the other one.
This is a long film – 145 minutes – shot in austere tones, mostly at night or during rain, and often at a slower pace than we’re now used to. Since even its public settings are mostly denuded of other people, even the occasional extraneous passer-by is startling. DP Pierre Lhomme says its pace profoundly respects the audience, giving us time to think and feel. It works. By the time her fellows argue Mathilde’s fate – she has reason for her apparent betrayal, she’s saved all their lives at some point and we've seen what they risk – your stomach’s in a knot. Few films have you wondering so acutely what you would do in their characters' shoes.
On May 15, Criterion released Army of Shadows on a two-disc DVD set. The terrific bonus disc includes new interviews with the cinematographer and with the editor, Françoise Bonnot (whose mother had edited most of Melville’s previous films), several archival interviews with Melville (he died five years after making this film) and with several cast members. These include Simone Signoret, who divulges that Lucie Aubrac, the Resistance member upon whom Signoret’s character, Mathilde, is based, was her own history professor before the war.
In contrast to Rossellini's Rome, Open City production, Melville waited twenty-five years to make Army of Shadows, based on a 1943 novel by Joseph Kessel. It was a departure for Melville, who adored American gangster and detective films, drove around in a white Camaro, wearing a white Stetson because it reminded him of Texas, and inspired younger directors like Godard by his fiercely independent and meticulous filmmaking. Melville was in his early 20s during World War II and made three films about the Nazi Occupation. US audiences, if they now him at all, know cult films like Bob le flambeur (1956), Le Samurai (1967) or Un flic (1972). In 2002, Neil Jordan directed a remake of Bob le flambeur, entitled The Good Thief, starring Nick Nolte and crediting Melville as a screenwriter.
Despite enormous media interest in Army of Shadows during the shoot – Melville’s other films were popular, he finally had a big budget, and he’d staged a controversial reenactment of Nazis marching past the Arc de Triomphe – the film opened to a difficult mood. In 1969, the student strikes of the previous May still reverberated in Paris and beyond. Charles DeGaulle – revered in the film – was being toppled. And Marcel Ophüls’ monumental The Sorrow and the Pity was about to expose flaws in the Resistance’s purity (much as Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book is now revisiting the Dutch Resistance). But Army of Shadows has continued to surface, re-releasing elsewhere in Europe in 1978, again in 1988 and, after the film’s significant and painstaking restoration, in 2005. It’s a sobering thought, that we’ve done without this film for so long. You have to see it.
This review appeared in the 6/14/07 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing recent films that did not have a theatrical opening in Syracuse & older films of enduring worth.