Army of Shadows

By Tim Palmer.

Few directors have enjoyed a contemporary renaissance like Jean-Pierre Melville.  Over the last five years his career has been newly appraised and celebrated ― especially in the English language ― while many of his films have received meticulous restorations, and at last been re-released.  Today, Melville’s reputation is that of a full-fledged auteur, a major figure in world cinema, as widely recognized for his pioneering methods as independent producer as for his bewilderingly exacting approach to direction.  Belated justice, this, for a filmmaker responsible for iconic works like Bob the Gambler (1955), Le Doulos (1962), and Le Samouraï (1967).

The cost of Melville’s independence, as for his contemporaries Jacques Tati and Robert Bresson, was the paucity of his output.  Melville completed just thirteen features in twenty-five years, beginning with Le Silence de la mer (1949), his infamous full-length debut, and ending with his death shortly after Un Flic (1973), his anti-climactic but still fascinating final work.  French cinema itself underwent great turbulence during this period ― from the decline of the classical era, through the fleeting commercialism of the 1950s, the frantic rise and the fall of the New Wave, the onset of radicalism in the late 1960s, and the end of censorship in the early 1970s ― but Melville’s films remained remarkably consistent, coherent, and resolutely personal.  Never a filmmaker swayed by fads or fashions, Melville pursued resolutely his own brand of cinema, poised artfully between the forms of mass genre, with which he was adept and intimately familiar, and minimalist idiosyncrasy, a boiled-down approach to film style.  Times changed, but Melville followed his own obstinate course, on- and off-screen.

Melville’s spectacular after-life on DVD has brought his films to new audiences, and made obscure titles easy to (re-)discover.  No longer restricted to retrospectives at festivals and arthouse theaters, Melville’s work has been lavished with attention by specialist DVD outfits like Criterion, on Region 1 in theUSA, and Masters of Cinema and the BFI, on Region 2 inEngland.  And just as Melville’s renewed following outside France initially hinged on his crime films, there is growing appreciation now for Melville’s long-term interest in (or fixation upon) World War II, its catastrophes and compromises.  Melville was a cinéaste first, a self-made man of cinema, but he was also a veteran and ex-Resistance campaigner unable to purge the memories of his country’s disgrace and defeat.  Melville, moreover, cultivated both facets within his intertextual mythology: in his work and publicity (which were intermingled symbiotically) his persona was of a renegade deal-maker and improvising entrepreneur, but also a professional idealist, fighting the good fight, alone and unyielding, against the forces that would undermine his integrity.

The return of Melville’s wartime masterpiece, Army of Shadows (1969), was a major event even before the appearance of the new Criterion DVD.  On its first run in France the film was a reasonable if limited success, with just under 1.5 million paid admissions.  But French critics by and large found the film to be out of date and out of touch, a naive ode to times past, and, most fatally, irrelevant to the ongoing struggle begun in May 1968, a simmering if ultimately short-lived political backlash.  At the end of the 1960s, cutting edge cinema ― motivating talking points at radicalized, leftist journals like Cahiers du cinéma and Positif ― adopted far more experimental styles and more openly aggressive social critiques.  Godardian collectives and Maoist agit-prop were at the forefront of this sector of French film culture, not Melville’s rather classical reenactment of Resistance activities from a quarter of a century ago.  Worse still came later for Army of Shadows, when it failed to secure American distribution, apparently due to sensitivity about the deteriorating Vietnam war.  Certainly, the prospect of a film which memorialized the efforts of an occupied nation carrying out subversive, often violent acts of rebellion against an implacable invader hardly meshed with the American political agenda of the early 1970s.  Faced with such hostility, Army of Shadows itself soon disappeared, obscure and out of circulation, in practical terms lost for more than a decade, available in contemporary times only in decayed, bootleg video versions.

In 2006 and 2007, fortunately, the cultural and political climate has propelled Army of Shadows, rightly, back to a position of prominence.  Suddenly Melville’s film seems terrifyingly relevant again, not only in its precise evocation of World War II and its appalling impact on France, but also in its focus on how lives are lived in wartime: under constant duress, relentlessly drained of hope, stubbornly attached to ideals that on the ground can, and usually will, lead to abrupt, horrific, meaningless death.  Many twenty-first century critics ― and according to the Metacritic online database, Army of Shadows was the best-reviewed film in America in 2006, an extraordinary reversal of fortune ― have gone further, linking the shadows in Melville’s world to the shadows in Iraq.  Central to Melville’s approach, certainly, is the bleak uncertainty of war as it is experienced first hand ― far removed from the satisfaction that personal sacrifice will one day be remembered, as contributing to some larger cause.  The broader flow of history is startlingly absent here ― like most of Melville’s films, Army of Shadows provides virtually no backstory, and little or no sense of a past or future.  The world exists in a state of vivid yet dangerous presentness, the pessimistic now; people are here today, absent or gone tomorrow.  These shadows are fleeting, and vulnerable to exposure.

Army of Shadows, taking its fractured design from the source novel by Joseph Kessel, follows the actions and interactions of a constantly outmaneuvered Resistance cell, operating inFrance and, briefly,England.  The film opens in 1942, when the Free France cause looked hopeless indeed.  Its episodic narrative focuses loosely on Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura, in an extraordinarily disciplined performance), whose leadership of the underground takes him from incarceration in a Vichy camp, to escape from the Hôtel Majestic in Paris, to Marseille, to London, back to Lyon, and then on to a tragic denouement in Paris.  Proximate to Gerbier’s work are his fellow agents: the chameleonic Mathilde (Simone Signoret), the increasingly pragmatic young Jean-François (Jean-Pierre Cassel), and their associates Félix (Paul Crauchet), Le Masque (Claude Mann), Luc (Paul Meurisse), and Le Bison (Christian Barbier). 

While this sprawling troupe of characters co-exist memorably on-screen in a state of emotionally withdrawn, stoic dedication ― a key skill of Melville’s, neglected in most auteurist studies of most directors, was his ability to cast well, carefully advancing supporting players or else reining in stars like Ventura ― their deeds are far from heroic.  Years before the savage revisionism of Marcel Ophüls’s The Sorrow and the Pity, released in Paris in 1971, Army of Shadows is as much as study of failure as it is rebellion.  There is no sabotage here, no inspiring acts of counter-espionage, and the film instead shows minor acts of subversion ― Jean-François smuggling a replacement radio transmitter to Mathilde in Paris; Gerbier helping English and Canadian pilots hide from the Nazis ― that are themselves depicted with Melville’s customary eye for calm, deflated moments of understated tension.  Even when members of the group act to save their own, or help imprisoned comrades, their interventions lead to impassively borne calamity.  Undramatic encounters, at times unremittingly desolate, accumulate.  In one scene, Jean-François meets his brother Luc in Paris for a rare moment of intimacy, but neither man realizes the other’s involvement with the Resistance, and neither, we soon learn, will ever meet again.  More poignant still is a scene in which Gerbier is captured by the Gestapo and believes his death to be imminent.  As he is led away, apparently to be shot, his (last?) thoughts recall simple, even stark, recent events: plans made with Mathilde, the execution of a young traitor.  It is not that these people are exceptional, Melville suggests, or that their lives precipitated much of consequence, but rather that they maintained their bearing and loyalty when under pressure, confronted by brutal contingency.  This unyielding composure, the group’s commitment to its mission and its members, is what embodies Melville’s shadow army.  In this way, Army of Shadows makes tangible the nobility of a banal everyday made fraught with risk and loss.  This rivettingly elliptical treatment of wartime ― favoring the austere details of Bresson’s A Man Escaped (1956) rather than the bombastic battlefields of Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998) ― is, quite simply, the measure of the film, and its maker.

Besides a Resistance that in real terms barely resists, Army of Shadows is often an arrestingly strange, unpredictable film ― much less a straightforward account of the French war than most accounts suggest.  Its famous opening long take, for example, one of two shots the laconic (and perhaps disingenuous) Melville ever admitted to being proud of, takes place as a group of Nazis parade through Paris, in the shadow of the never more ironically named Arc de Triomphe.  Yet it is clear that there is absolutely no one there watching the parade ― why is it taking place?  The visual and thematic force of this set piece,Paris cowed by triumphant occupiers, is undeniable, yet the moment exists in a peculiar dramatic and stylistic vacuum ― Melville even toyed with saving the shot for his finale, before switching it to the start only after the film’sParis release. 

Throughout the film, in this context, Melville’s narrative and stylistic choices are frequently disconcerting, but oddly effective, even given his predilection for cinematic restraint and abstraction.  After Gerbier makes his escape from a Paris hotel ― immediately beforehand, the wry hint of a smile he gives a fellow prisoner is one of the few overt acting tics Ventura offers in the entire film ― Melville begins with a fast-paced right-to-left track of him racing desperately, protractedly, through the city streets, as snow falls.  But then he cuts to Gerbier avoiding his presumed pursuers, never shown, by getting a shave from an unnamed Barber (a deft cameo appearance from Serge Reggiani).  Long moments pass; we watch the Barber carefully apply lather then set about his task; the shave continues; he―finally―offers Gerbier his coat in implied sympathy.  Again, Melville’s point is well taken, that threat exists for the Resistance in trivial encounters, at all times, but this sequencing of events, their co-existence, is uneasy ― Gerbier seems barely out of breath as he enters from the street.

Such charismatic textual oddities stem, inevitably, from Melville’s approach to cinema: his disinterest in realism, his avoidance of blatancy or emotional crescendos, his reliance upon asides, and his (hard-working) viewers making thoughtful inferences.  Aspects of this idiosyncratic approach to filmmaking emerge from the Army of Shadows DVD’s strong array of extras.  Best of all on offer is a pair of interviews with Melville’s cinematographer Pierre Lhomme, who situates his director’s occasional fondness for visual and dramatic illogic in his roots as an amateur filmmaker driven by constraints of budget and resources.  Lhomme discusses extraordinary scenes like the early shots of Gerbier, imprisoned in a Nazi van, being driven through driving rain that apparently makes no splashes in puddles visible in the foreground.  Melville, it seems, insisted upon a double exposure shot at the expense of visual plausibility ― rare is the filmmaker as obsessed with the stylistic impact of overbearing weather as Melville.  In the same vein, Lhomme reflects on mismatched locations and sets, Melville’s use of flagrant and outmoded back-projection (like Hitchcock, the artifice bothered him not at all), awkward continuity, and unconvincing model exteriors.  The surprise, Lhomme suggests, is not only that such a successful filmmaker should retain, even relish these quirks from his humble (non-) professional roots, but that the results work on-screen so amazingly well ― he talks with great pride about Melville’s unceasing demands on-set and the feisty collaboration that developed.

Equally engaging is the material on Army of Shadows‘s cinematography and production design ― which, typically for Melville and his favored Kodak Eastmancolor film stock, was muted to the point of becoming monochromatic, devoid of all warm tones and emphatic color highlights.  One wonderful detail of mise-en-scène, in this regard, appears in a shot within a Vichy detention camp in which we see, briefly, the French tricolore flapping forlornly, ironically, above this scene of capitulation.  In Melville’s jaundiced diegetic world, drained of color, the jaunty red-white-blue has become a symbolically stained flag of congealed burgundy blood, rancid pale, and dirty grey.  Criterion was criticized in some quarters for heating up the color scheme slightly in its digital release of Le Samouraï, a report my inspection of ageing 35mm prints can neither confirm nor deny.  But, either way, it seems Melville’s insistence upon stylistic dilution for Army of Shadows has been posthumously retained. 

Criterion recently announced its decision to begin an Eclipse series, offering a new series of arthouse hits on DVD in more basic form, cheaper and devoid of extras.  Given their obvious attention to detail on the double-disc Army of Shadows, the obviously painstaking work that has gone into its packaging and re-release, it’s clear why they no longer have the time to give every title the full treatment.  Like the very best of their collection, professors, fans and cinéphiles alike will be grateful for the care that has gone into reviving this long forgotten, unjustly unknown film.  Criterion’s Army of Shadows, to follow Melville’s preference for aphorism, sheds light on a dazzling gem of cinema. 

Tim Palmer is Assistant Professor of film studies at the Universityof North Carolina Wilmington.  His chapter on Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï appeared in The Cinema of France (Wallflower, 2006).  His new essay about Melville’s maverick origins, “’An Amateur of Quality’: Post-War French Cinema and Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Silence de la mer,” will be published in the Winter 2007 issue of Journal of Film and Video


Film Details

Army of Shadows, (1969)

Director Jean-Pierre Melville

Screenplay Adaptation Jean-Pierre Melville

Based on the Novel by Joseph Kessel

Producer Jacques Dorfmann

Director of Photography Pierre Lhomme

Editor Françoise Bonnot

Set Design Roger Volper

Costume Design Colette Baudot

Original Music Eric Demarsan

With Lino Ventura (Philippe Gerbier), Paul Meurisse (Luc Jardie), Jean-Pierre Cassel (Jean-François), Simone Signoret (Mathilde), Claude Mann (Claude Le Masque), Paul Crauchet (Félix), Christian Barbier (Le Bison), Serge Reggiani (The Barber)

Runtime 145 minutes

United States, 2007

Produced and Distributed by The Criterion Collection (region 1, NTSC)

Aspect Ratio 1.85:1

Extras New, restored high-definition digital transfer of the 2004 restoration, supervised by Pierre Lhomme.  Audio commentary by Ginette Vicendeau.  New interviews with Pierre Lhomme and Françoise Bonnot.  Archival video excerpts and interview with Melville and cast members.  Jean-Pierre Melville et “L’Armée des ombres,” a short program on the director and his film.  Le Journal de la Résistance (1944), a rare short documentary, shot on the front lines of German-occupied Paris.  Film restoration demonstration by Pierre Lhomme.  Booklet featuring essays by Amy Taubin, Robert Paxton, and excerpts from Rui Noguiera’s Melville on Melville.

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