At a crucial point in Jean-Pierre Melville's 1969 ode to the French Resistance, Army of Shadows (L'armée des Ombres), his hero, Gerbier (played with a sober, contemplative gait by Lino Ventura), has been captured by the Nazis and is marked for execution. In a twist of cruelty, the Germans line up their prisoners and tell them to run. If they can reach the far wall of the rather large room they are in, they will live to be shot a different day. If they are gunned down before they get to the other side, well, c'est la vie.
When the head Nazi starts the race, Gerbier is convinced he will not run, but once the bullets begin to fly, his legs start pumping and he's beating feet just like the rest of them. He's not happy with himself for doing so, but it's not out of any self-loathing or recriminations for being a coward. What bothers him is that everyone thought he would run, and they turned out to be right. How did they know?
There is not a lot of self-reflection in Army of Shadows. Melville, who also adapted the screenplay from a novel by Joseph Kessel, doesn't spend much time building up his heroes or explaining the mechanics of the resistance movement. By the time he plops us down into the middle of the campaign to liberate France from the Nazi invaders, the action is already underway. So, this scene comes off less as an object lesson in German cruelty and more as an existential parable. Why indeed would they think Gerbier would run from their gunfire? It's a stand-in for the bigger question: why did they think the French would lay down and die? Gerbier's run for self-preservation is a sprint for his country.
As portraits of patriotism go, Army of Shadows is a strange, wonderful beast. There are no rah-rah moments where defiant Frenchmen stand and wave the French flag and sing "La Marseillaise." To speak is a sin. You can be locked up just for publicly referring to a Nazi official as a "jackass." Instead, the men and women who work with Gerbier operate as a silent pocket universe, separate from the rest of France, and even separate from the rest of the Resistance movement. It is implied that there is a more extensive network of freedom fighters--and indeed, they even have a great leader who unites them all (Paul Meurisse)--but any contact we see between this group and their comrades is rare. They exist out of time, out of space.
Really, Melville infuses his entire film with this surreal, almost Kafka-esque quality. The movie proper opens with Gerbier in the back of a truck, being driven out to a remote, countryside prison. Were you to stumble into Army of Shadows with no context, you'd be forgiven for thinking it was a No Exit-style tale about lost men in a nonexistent world, prisoners of a made-up war. The gendarme that escorts Gerbier even refers to it as the "Phony War," a rarely used term for the German takeover. None of it feels quite real.
Which is Melville's stroke of genius. He doesn't let Army of Shadows get tangled up in the larger picture. Rather, his film is about a handful of people, how individuals refused to accept fate and instead chose to run. At times, their efforts seem futile, like spitting into the ocean. Gerbier and crew don't blow up Gestapo headquarters, we don't see them liberate rations from supply trucks. Really, we end up seeing them simply avoiding getting caught more than anything. Like Robert De Niro's secret agents in The Good Shepherd, after a while they start to appear like they are doing what they are doing just to be doing it, an organization feeding on itself just as it perpetuates its own reason for being. But that's the true existential conflict, the mark of the philosophical warrior, to keep acting--because not to act, not to run, equals death. For instance, Jean-Francois (Jean-Pierre Cassel), one of Gerbier's top agents, makes the ultimate sacrificial gesture, and he does so knowing full well that no one will know he has done it. He even obscures the action himself, throwing a curtain over it by making his cohorts think he's chickened out.
It's rare to see a celebration of stoicism that remains stoic right to the end, but Melville is praising the sacrifice of people who did what they did with no expectation of praise. The full price of that sacrifice is apparent in the carefully chosen moments when they have to accept actions they would have never undertaken were circumstances different, such as Gerbier having to conduct his first murder of a traitor (and how much more easy it is later), or the excellent Simone Signoret, playing the formidable Mathilde, seeing her resolution coming and knowing that this time it's better if she doesn't run. The conclusion of Army of Shadows is fatalistic and almost melancholy, and yet Melville and his characters clench their jaws for it, never crumbling. Anything less, though, and we wouldn't understand the full consequence. In these moments, in the crisis of conscious Gerbier experiences after the Nazi death game, everyone must ask how far they would go, and if sometimes going too far means coming full circle and betraying your own ideals. Only then, when you keep pushing despite the doubts, is true heroism achieved, be it heroic or not. It's the director's final tribute, staying true to the strength that kept his countrymen going.
This Army of Shadows - Criterion Collection utilizes the restored print that played in U.S. theatres last year, supervised by director of photography Pierre Lhomme to achieve the proper color scheme, something that previous prints had failed to do. Namely, he keeps the colors dialed down, removing any warm tones, in an effort to have a cold, somber mood throughout. The 1.85:1 widescreen transfer shows a careful, loving hand. The only real flaws I saw were three scenes where the action was supposed to be taking place in total darkness but the blacks were patchy and marred by artifacting (chapter 9 at the seaside house, chapter 21 outside the prison, and chapter 24, when Gerbier is hiding out in the shack). These moments were surprising because they were so glaring, I couldn't believe they had slipped through.
The French audio is mixed both in mono and as an optional 2.0 Dolby track. The soundtrack is crisp, full of atmosphere, both hollow and full. The English subtitles are well-written and easy to read.
Army of Shadows - Criterion Collection is a two-disc DVD set. The first disc has the movie, trailers (the original French, artfully edited and narrated by Melville, and the 2006 US version), and an audio commentary by film historian Ginette Vincendeau, who has written a book about Melville. Her discussion is extremely detailed. She draws the lines between fact and fiction, both as it applies to the film itself and the novel it is based on. She also gives us background on the people in the movie, including the actuality of Melville's own time as part of the French resistance.
DVD 2 is the supplemental disc. It contains:
* A short interview with Melville from French TV during the shooting of Army of Shadows, including on-set footage. (4:20)
* A new interview with Pierre Lhomme (14:07) where he talks about working with Melville, including the improvisation of certain effects so the young cinematographer could achieve what the seasoned director wanted. He also goes into some of the challenges of trying to restore the unique color palette Melville had intended for the film. This is followed by a separate 7-minute restoration demonstration put together by Lhomme, showing multiple comparisons of image resolution, some of the tears and cracks in the prints that had to be repaired, and a step-by-step recreation of 140 frames missing from the opening scene. There is also a stills gallery of color tests Melville and Lhomme did on the shoot, which were used as reference for the new transfer.
* An interview with editor Francoise Bonnot, whose mother edited many of Melville's other films. She has plenty of amusing anecdotes about the strange demands of a very demanding director. (10:56)
* Selections from a 1969 episode of the French television show L'invité du dimanche that focused on Melville. These excerpts deal directly with Army of Shadows, and in addition to on-set footage, include interviews with Melville, his cast, and the writer of the original novel, Joseph Kessel. It's a veritable treasure trove of material, and it's too neat a treat to see and hear film of the director being as meticulous and demanding as Lhomme and Bonnot told us he could be. About a third of the included program features André Dewavrin, the real liaison between England and France during the Occupation, who plays a version of himself in Army of Shadows. (30:17)
* Melville et "L'armée des Ombres" is a 2005 documentary (27:30) featuring Lhomme, Bonnot, Jean Pierre-Cassel, and composer Eric Demarsan, alongside filmmakers Philippe Labro and Bernard Tavernier, looking back at the history of Army of Shadows and its director. It's quite a tribute to the man, tinged with the irreverence and humor that only hindsight can bring. It's probably the best homage here, because it's the least reverential--which seems truer to Melville's spirit.
Finally, in a submenu titled "The Resistance," are three more extras:
* Le journal de la Résistance, a 1944 propaganda documentary from the real front lines of the Occupation. It's narrated by Noel Coward and is part of the collection put together by the Imperial War Museum. Most of the footage is from the final days of the liberation of Paris, and some of it is quite gruesome. (34:00)
* "Simone Signoret and Lucie Aubrac," a montage of interviews from 1984 where the actress discusses the character she played, which was partially based on Aubrac. In turn, Aubrac reflects on her feelings about being portrayed in movies and novels. (5:25)
* Pieces of a 1973 episode of Ouvrez les Guillemets where surviving members of the Resistance are interviewed and debate different viewpoints about how the movement was conducted and the relationship of France and England. (23:30)
The interior booklet for Army of Shadows - Criterion Collection has numerous essays about the film, including critical pieces by Amy Taubin and history professor Robert O. Paxton. The rest of the 44-page color booklet is filled out by photos and words from Melville himself, excerpted from the book Melville on Melville.
DVD Talk Collector Series. It amazes me that Army of Shadows has remained in the shadows for so long. Never shown in America until 2006, Jean-Pierre Melville's iron-jawed, demystified eulogy of the French Resistance is both an honest time capsule of WWII and a timeless, almost surreal, existential parable. Rarely pausing to reflect on its own meaning, this string of stories about a band of fighters is nevertheless a philosophical and moral picture of action in a time of distress. Lovingly shot and meticulously edited, the DVD era and the Criterion Collection finally give Army of Shadows to a wider audience, brilliantly restored and packed with supplemental features. This one is not to be missed.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent projects include the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat; Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks, a loopy crime tale drawn by Dan Christensen; and the horror miniseries Madame Frankenstein, a collaboration with Megan Levens. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.