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Plenty of movies have been made about the German occupation of Paris, that give an entirely distorted idea of what it must have been like to operate as a clandestine member of the French Resistance. Jean-Pierre Melville's Army of Shadows may be the most accurate. A victim of the prejudices of New Wave critics, the film was never exported to American until 2006. When it was made in 1969, the anti-authoritarian student rebellion in Paris was at a high pitch, and Melville's tale of heroism in the Resistance was considered both old-hat and pro- Charles de Gaulle.
Melville's movie is now often referred to as his masterpiece. His crime thrillers Le samouraï and Le Cercle rouge are highly stylized dramas about crooks and hit-men bound by rigid codes of conduct. Melville's resistance operatives behave in much the same way, but for a practical purpose: any deviation from a safe pattern is an invitation to Gestapo torture. Conditions force the resistance agents to be utterly ruthless with their own people as well: the perilous work is an existential trap.
The overall tone of the film is neither heroic nor optimistic. French cops capture resistance agent Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura) and deliver him to a camp for political prisoners. Then the German occupiers take him to Paris, where he and another captive make a daring escape right out of Gestapo headquarters. Aided by ordinary citizens, Gerbier makes it to Marseilles, where he and the loyal Felix (Paul Crauchet) execute one of their own, a teenager who foolishly informed on Gerbier. Gerbier goes by submarine to London with Luc Jardie (Paul Meurisse), a top resistance leader. When he parachutes back into France, Gerbier meets a resourceful female agent, Mathilde (Simone Signoret) and an efficient recruit, Jean François Jardie (Jean-Pierre Cassel). Neither Jean Françoise nor his brother Luc realize that the other is in the resistance. Soon members of the resistance cell are captured, and desperate measures are taken to rescue them. But the emotional and moral strain is almost too much to bear.
Army of Shadows is true to the resistance experience in that it has only a couple of moments of action. The balance of the film is a tense game of chance between mostly unseen German Gestapo agents and resistance operatives well aware that they could be captured and tortured at any moment. The agents are deeply committed to their work and live by a code of morbid fatalism, as if their sacrifices will prove something to God. Beyond faith in a better future for their country, there is no assurance of survival and absolutely no chance of a personal reward. It's just something they do. Gerbier quickly assesses the men he bunks with in a political prison: three guys picked up for being in the wrong place or saying the wrong thing, and two communists. He calls them three idiots and two lost souls. Anyone believing that legitimate excuses or altruistic motives will make a difference in the insanity of the occupation just doesn't understand. Survival only comes by remaining calm, while being ready to seize any opportunity that comes along.
Jean-Pierre Melville's style fits in perfectly with modern tastes in art filmmaking. His simple camera setups telegraph nothing, keeping us in perpetual suspense. Colors are cold and the majority of the film plays out in semi-darkness. Melville's 'world' of 1943 France is detailed, but not overly explained. Luc Jardie enters a little glass booth he's constructed in his library. His body heat will warm it up; there's not enough fuel available to heat the entire house. In one scene we see a pair of miraculously preserved 1930s Lysander aircraft, but for a parachuting sequence Melville relies on obvious miniatures. We're told that in earlier pirated videos, the timing of these scenes was too light, making the miniatures look even worse!
Melville's is extremely restrained in what he chooses to show. He gives us no 'entertaining' torture scenes. We see the Gestapo's victims before and after horrendous abuse, and can only guess what's been done to them. The Germans aren't even 'Aryan' types, but look like normal bureaucrats. He suggests the scope of French collaboration without making a big issue of it. A French cop tells Gerbier that it is lucky that France had so many unused POW camps set up when the Germans took over, because now they have plenty of places to put political prisoners. For all practical purposes, Gerbier and his agents are fighting both the Germans and the "legal" French authorities.
Lino Ventura is excellent as the likeable field agent, thinking on his feet and looking out for his operatives. He has to accept the fact that the British and perhaps even the Gaullist exiles in England don't trust the resistance, and won't support them with special arms. Paul Meurisse is suitably grave as the top mastermind; anyone who has seen H.G. Clouzot's Les diaboliques will recognize him immediately. Agents like Simone Signoret's Mathilde are utterly on their own, and safe only as long as their activities seem innocuous. Mathilde is an expert at casually carrying spy radios through checkpoints, but she makes a foolish sentimental mistake. The terrifying reality is that one can easily be arrested without making a mistake or being betrayed. Gerbier narrowly misses being caught more than once, and then is nabbed in a random sweep of a café.
Army of Shadows maintains its quiet menace. Some of the resistors' daring plans work, and others fail dismally. Cold logic demands that our central cadre undertake a final distasteful mission, and Melville leaves their eventual fates to a chilling series of text cards.
In one bizarre day-in-the-life of a resistance agent, Gerbier and an associate see Gone With The Wind while in London. He remarks that he'll know that they've won when that "terrific" film can play in Paris. A day or two later, Gerbier is parachuting back into harm's way.
Criterion's Blu-ray of Army of Shadows is a distinct improvement on the older 2-disc DVD. The film has many scenes printed darkly, or filmed in cold, dark spaces; the extra resolution and contrast range not only makes details easier to see, it confirms that the look of the film is a viable aesthetic choice. The muted color look also predates later semi-docu styles. Director Melville makes many smart choices. The movie avoids opticals when it can, and someone thought to superimpose rain over the scene behind the main titles, as that sequence would have to be an optical anyway.
This new Blu-ray includes the terrific set of extras contained in the older release. They constitute a multimedia primer on the French Resistance 1940-1944. The commentary by Ginette Vincendeau, excerpts from several French television shows and interviews with cameraman Pierre Lhomme and editor Françoise Bonnot cover the production history of the movie. Even better is an old show that convenes a discussion between four or five major resistance leaders, including André Dewavrin, a hero known as 'Colonel Passy' who actually plays himself in Army of Shadows. The leaders immediately reopen old disputes between the resistance men who directed from London and those in the field who resented being treated like pawns. The controversies of war never die, even between comrades.
Another exciting extra is a 1944 compilation of footage shot during the liberation of Paris and narrated by Noel Coward. Le journal de la Résistance would really be the perfect accompaniment for Is Paris Burning? Coward's voiceover script mirrors the sentiments of the time -- ordinary German soldiers are mocked as 'fallen Supermen', while Coward happily anticipates reprisals directed at female 'horizontal' collaborators.
Disc producer Abbey Lustgarten fills a fat insert booklet with essays and interviews from Amy Taubin and Rui Nogueira. Robert O. Paxton provides a fascinating article identifying the real resistance agent that each character in Army of Shadows is supposed to represent. Criterion's extras greatly enlarge our appreciation of Melville's movie.
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