One of the most ignored consequences of the latest Iraq War is the widening rift between former Atlantic allies. Politicians and economists might mend fences in near future, but phrases like "Adolf Bush" and "cheese-loving surrender monkeys" would need more time to disappear from mainstream vocabularies. This latter phrase describes American perception of France, formed by that nation's WWII record. In 1940, after few weeks of German onslaught, French army, until that time believed to be strongest in Europe, simply melted away and allowed Germans to roll over their country and meet resistance comparable to those experienced by Americans in Iraq few days ago. It was probably the most humiliating moment in French history, because French collapse had less to do with German military advantage (which was negligible compared to the advantage USA had over Iraqis in latest war) than with the lack of French fighting spirit. The nation simply lost the will to fight and saw foreign occupation as lesser evil than war. Some French even went further and became Hitler's enthusiastic supporters. Yet, there was a small minority of people who didn't reconcile with that state of affairs and went to do something about it, often risking their lives. One group of people belonging to this minority is the subject of L'armée des ombres a.k.a. Army of Shadows, 1969 war drama written and directed by Jean-Pierre Melville.
The plot of the film, based on the novel by Joseph Kessel, starts in October 1942 and follows few months in the lives of resistance fighters gathered around Philippe Gerbier (played by Lino Ventura), quiet, soft-spoken civic engineer who is actually one of resistance's important leaders. Following his escape from the hands of Vichy government and Gestapo, Gerbier orders the killing of a man who had betrayed him and later accompanies philosopher Luc Jardin (played by Paul Meurisse), his superior within resistance movement, to London. From there he parachutes back to France to help organising various resistance activities and notices the extraordinary work of Mathilde (played by Simone Signoret), strong and intelligent woman capable of combating Germans in the most ingenious ways possible. However, his organisation is going to endure many difficult ordeals, demanding some tough personal choices from their members.
Just like the novel's author Kessel, Jean-Pierre Melville has been a member of Resistance in real life, so Army of Shadows has some autobiographic elements. Those who cherish Melville's gangster classics often claim that the themes of personal code, loyalty and friendship, as well as distinctively ascetic author's style, were formed by Melville's WW2 experiences. Army of Shadows indeed does resemble Melville's gangster films - the pace is slow, with many scenes methodically showing the protagonists' prosaic reality and action being swift and unglamorous. Yet, something is missing - a coherent plot. Army of Shadows instead switches attention from one randomly selected character to another, with their stories not often having clear connection with each other. At least this is the impression created by poor editing (in one particularly confusing scene, the viewer would need some time to realise that the scene takes place in occupied France instead of Britain). Various characters using internal monologues at random times also add to confusion, although this could be Melville's idea of being faithful to literary source (in this time not very filmable).
Yet, with all those structural flaws, Army of Shadows is still quite extraordinary piece of work. The main reason for that is in its realism and minimalist, but nevertheless very strong performances from its actors. Melville deliberately refuses to cast stars in film's roles in order to convey the message that the Resistance was the work of ordinary people and not supermen. The closest thing to a star in Army of Shadows is Lino Ventura, character actor who could be best described as French equivalent of Charles Bronson – man who doesn't talk and act much, but nevertheless conveys strong presence and radiates authority. Even Simone Signoret, one of French cinema's most recognisable icons, arrives half way through the film, although she plays very strong character. Because of all that, the audience can identify with the characters – ordinary people like themselves - and some of otherwise prosaic sequences have strong emotional impact. This is most evident in the shooting scene, when Gerbier asks the very same unpleasant question every member of the audience would ask in such situation.
The most valuable thing about Army of Shadows is, however, in its authenticity. It could be seen not only in one of real-life French resistance characters playing himself, but also in many small but telling details that show the life of France under Nazi occupation - policemen knocking on village house doors in order to get decent meal, thriving black market, large house owners being forced to build mini-chambers within their houses in order to conserve heat etc. The film also shows how the French Resistance, despite its small numbers represented a mini-version of French society in general – its members were people of both genders, all ages, social standings or political persuasions (ranging from left-wing Communists to ultra-right-wing Royalists) and even the motives for joining varied from individual to individual - some joined for patriotic reasons, some because they wanted adventure. Yet, the film's ending shows that despite those differences, the fate of many was the same and that they made the ultimate sacrifice in order to clear their country's name. Watching Army of Shadows might help erasing some fashionable but insulting phrases from contemporary vocabularies.
RATING: 7/10 (+++)
(Note: The text in its original form was posted in Usenet newsgroup rec.arts.movies.reviews on April 15th 2003)
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