ARMY OF SHADOWS (L’Armée des ombres) A
France Italy (145 mi) 1969 d: Jean-Pierre Melville
A densely layered, profound, and meticulously paced, perfectly edited epic of the French resistance, much in the intense and measured manner of Bresson’s A Man Escaped (Un Condamné à Mort s'est échappé) (1956), where attention to detail is exceptional, revealing segment after segment of small intimate moments critical in several resistance fighter’s lives, where each decision manifests itself through the enormous consequences of their acts, eventually taking a wearying toll on the participants, always outnumbered, always targeted by the authorities, providing an authentically realistic view of the startling subject matter, facing a moral dilemma every day of having to accomplish the impossible. Perhaps also a predecessor to the style of the Dardenne brothers, which through its rhythmic display of the smallest detail of daily routine, reveals an outstanding characterization of a larger picture. This film feels extremely personal, as if the filmmaker has already been there, as each perfectly crafted image carries the weight of those who actually walked in those shoes, a weight that feels devastatingly human. The film is actually based on a book by Joseph Kessel, who also wrote of the secret peculiar Parisian love lives in Belle de Jour, so his visualization of the material has been beautifully expressed by both Buñuel and now Melville. The writer and the filmmaker were also both active members in the French resistance, so this is an extremely personalized collaboration.
The film opens with a crane shot offering an extraordinary high overview of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, a superb monument representing all that is French, as German troops methodically march unimpeded down the Champs-Elysees. The story then follows the hidden lives of the French resistance, operating an underground network that distributed information, weapons, manpower, as well as an ever-changing strategy to counteract the effect of the Nazi’s occupation throughout France. Their strategy worked only so long as they remained anonymous, as once they were detected, they were of no further use to the overall operations, as they drew a police presence wherever they went. This film examines several people who contributed, as if the revelations of their work could leave with us an imprint of an organization that accomplished so much, yet with devastating impact, as all the participants shown in the film eventually lost their lives, thus the name for the title of the film. But the film highlights their lives instead of their deaths. Despite carrying a nagging anxiety that every day they may be captured and interrogated, leading to torture or the firing squad, the film does an excellent job establishing the overall mood of dread and despair which filled their every waking thought, opening with the transport of a prisoner, Lino Ventura, who we follow throughout the film, to a prison camp, to his plans for an escape, but before he could enact them, he is subsequently transported to Gestapo headquarters, where he again maneuvers a dazzling escape with a fellow prisoner, something improvised on the spur of the moment, which reveals an acute mentality of the persons involved, drawing us into their unbelievably intense survivalist mode.
Not since Bertolucci’s The Conformist (Il Conformista) (1970) has so much psychological internalized anguish transpired while riding in vintage black cars, where much of the film is shot in darkness, traveling country roads in the wee hours of the morning, carrying out their operations under the cover of night as much as possible to avoid detection. Especially memorable are the silhouetted outline of bare trees against the blue morning sky, or giant puddles around the countryside farmhouses, or the stunning moonlight submarine rendezvous, transporting the operations chief from France to England to visit De Gaulle, where in the middle of an air raid, a man steps inside a doorway where soldiers and their girls are dancing to music in a basement bar, seemingly oblivious to the world outside. At one moment, as a man is about to face a firing squad, several of these kinds of images appear in his mind. Once he makes a rather miraculous escape, which brought a few snickers from the audience, as this was truly incredulous, yet what transpires afterwards is thoroughly entrenched in the most demoralizing futility, as the man who was literally seconds from death is re-created, almost from the womb, with his soul so darkly entrenched in his own powerlessness, expressed in an extended period of near total blackness and isolation, yet he has little choice but to carry on, even when he realizes the outcome before it ever happens. Due to the extreme secrecy of their mission, many resistance fighters die under false names, their sacrifices never known. Two brothers in the film never discover that they are both in the resistance, and their meeting together is exquisite, one a former gourmet who must now content himself with listening to Beethoven, or so it seems, as he is actually the head of the resistance, while his brother dies anonymously in a Nazi prison.
Near the end of the film, there is an overwhelming sense of dread undermining their thoughts. Despite the best minds and the best of intentions, how can they avoid being broken? They face an impossible psychological dilemma where they are each so peculiarly isolated and alone, the unique nature of their mission so dangerous, that the likelihood to succeed all but tempts suicide, as in their lives, torture followed by an agonizing death becomes inevitable. Jonathan Rosenbaum claims it’s a unique saga that haunts with echoes of the guilt and defeatism of Holocaust victims. Without the hindsight of history, not knowing if they would succeed or fail, the sense of despair is everywhere, as there is so little they seem to be able to do to counter the overwhelming wave of superior forces, yet they are driven anyway, despite the knowledge that all around them their fellow resistance fighters are being rounded up and killed, leaving them to deal with nothing less than the impossible, including the killing of their own, sometimes with their bare hands, chilling images that leave the audience emotionally depleted and devastated. Simone Signoret plays one of the most determined in the movement, and the dilemma she faces, that the organization faces, is simply unthinkable, yet her fate and the fate of others is calmly presented here without a trace of artifice. Throughout this film, lives are imprinted in our memories due to the exquisite recreation of their extraordinary efforts under extreme duress. Perhaps knowing the inevitable gave these individuals a unique courage to face death with such heroic stoicism. It is without doubt a rare privilege to experience such deeply affecting human intimacy.