The best new film I've seen so far this year is United 93, Paul Greengrass' searing account of a single flight on Sept. 11, 2001. Now, another superlative film reaches Triangle theaters this Friday and, like United 93, it ultimately turns on Hemingway-style reckonings with ethical behavior in the face of sure death. Jean-Pierre Melville's phenomenal Army of Shadows was released in France in 1969, but it never reached our shores back then. Distributor Rialto Pictures has, therefore, instructed the media not to call the film a "re-release," so Army of Shadows thus becomes this year's best movie since United 93.
Very simply, Melville's film tells the story of a doomed cell of French Resistance fighters under Nazi and Vichy rule. As a thriller, it is a stunner, but the film's real distinction comes from its dramatization of courage for its own sake, and it's willingness to challenge French myths about its own conduct during the occupation.
The film begins with a paddy wagon traveling through a lonesome countryside as the title appears: Oct. 20, 1942. On this day, one Philippe Gerbier, a civil engineer in peacetime but a smart and ruthless Resistance leader now, is being transported to a prison, one that was built for Germans during the "phony war" but was quickly converted to incarcerate French dissidents after the country was left defenseless with the retreat of De Gaulle's army across the Channel. Gerbier (played by French character actor and one-time wrestler Lino Ventura) is escorted into his barracks, where he integrates into the command structure of the prison. Although this opening scene immediately calls to mind Renoir's peerless World War I drama The Grand Illusion, we're immediately tipped off that heroism is in short supply among the French these days. Gerbier's lips fairly curl with contempt as he considers his fellow prisoners: "Three fools and two lost souls."
In short order, however, Gerbier makes a daring escape and rejoins his comrades in Marseilles and Paris. We meet his fellow subversives, who range from a wealthy dilettante named Jean-François to worried and overworked Felix to the inspiring, creative and brave Mathilde (played by the iconic Simone Signoret). The middle section of the film is taken up with the cell's operational efforts, ranging from smuggling radio transmitters to arranging a rendezvous with an Allied submarine off the southern coast.
But a disturbing pattern begins to emerge. Not only do we begin to wonder at the military utility of their operations, but we notice that their greatest ferocity seems to be directed at the suspected traitors in their own ranks. Very early, after Gerbier first escapes, he and two other men eliminate a young, beret-wearing turncoat in their own ranks. It's a horrifying scene, made all the more so because no one has ever killed a man before, and the only means at their disposal is strangulation. Some people just have a taste for ruthlessness--even civil engineers--and Gerbier is colder than the other men. It's clear that they are afraid of him, as are we.
Melville's film, which is based on the seminal novel of the period by Joseph Kessel, features many of the trademark techniques that have made Melville the thinking man's director of thrillers. Army of Shadows is an explicitly historical and political film that nonetheless bears many similarities to his existential crime thrillers such as Le Samourai, Le Cercle Rouge and Bob Le Flambeur. We have here, for example, his typically peerless use of sound and silence in order to build tension. Long, unbroken wide shots are punctuated by terrifying bursts of close-ups when violence is committed. Dialogue is sparse and to the point, and music almost always comes from an on-screen source. Melville is famous for a gripping jewel heist sequence in Le Cercle Rouge that transpires in utter silence for 20 minutes of screen time, but Army of Shadows contains--by my own threshold of fear--seven different sequences that are nearly heart-stopping in their tension.
The title Army of Shadows seems to suggest a sinister but effective subterranean cadre of freedom fighters, but we gradually come to understand that this Resistance force is more of a code of ethical behavior than a tactically significant force. There's a telling episode midway through the film when Gerbier and Luc Jardie, the leader of the Resistance (and modeled on actual leader Jean Moulin), escape to London. Instead of being whisked into urgent meetings with the Allied command, they're informed that the French Resistance isn't being taken seriously. They simply collect a medal from De Gaulle and go to the movies. After a while of this, Gerbier hitches a ride on an Allied plane and parachutes back into France.
Army of Shadows becomes a meditation on the loneliness of resisting occupation while it seems that everyone else has made their peace with it. Melville, a French Jew who was born Jean-Pierre Grumbach (later changing his name in tribute to Herman), was himself a member of the Resistance and later a fighter with the Free French. He has said that the vaunted French Resistance contained only about 600 people in 1940, although more people joined in later years, no doubt as the inevitability of liberation became clear, and also in response to German plans to draft French youth.
His film is more than simply nostalgia for his youthful heroics. The truth is, most French people simply accepted the Occupation and tried not to attract attention to themselves. The few who actively participated in the Resistance did so at fearful risk to themselves. We do see, in a couple of scenes, ordinary French people helping in small ways--I particularly like the wordless sequence in which a young mother unhesitatingly allows a Resistant to pose as her husband in order to clear a train station checkpoint.
Army of Shadows inspired a complex array of reactions when it was released in France in 1969--an extremely contentious time in French history, coming after the May 1968 demonstrations and the end of the De Gaulle era. In addition to everything else, French artists were beginning to suggest that their nation's heroic self-image was overblown, a point made most forcefully by Marcel Ophuls' monumental documentary The Sorrow and the Pity. (Some young artists in France are working this territory today: Last spring's Hi Mom! film festival in Carrboro included a work by the French filmmaker Jean-Gabriel Periot called Even if she had been a criminal..., a disturbing look at the retribution meted out to women who had consorted with German soldiers.)
Ultimately, Army of Shadows works brilliantly even when shorn of its historical context. The resisters seem to spend more time trying to get each other out of trouble than doing the business of sabotage, smuggling munitions, intelligence gathering and all the other things one would expect a clandestine network to do. Tragically, most of the violence they commit is against each other, a pattern that culminates with a shocking turn of events.
However upsetting the events of Army of Shadows turn out to be, we can't help but be awed by the courage of the rather ordinary people. Like the doomed business travelers of United 93, the soldiers in the Army of Shadows could have chosen to do nothing. It's not clear, from the limited vantage point we're given in Melville's film, whether this particular Resistance cell did anything useful. But like the airplane passengers, they concluded they would rather die fighting.
Army of Shadows opens Friday in select theaters.