Army Of Shadows (L’armée des ombres)
France (1969) Dir. Jean-Pierre Melville
World War II and French resistance network leader Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura) is arrested by Vinchy French police and taken to a prison camp. When he is taken to Paris for questioning Gerbier makes his escape Marseille, meeting up with three of his men, Félix Lepercq (Paul Crauchet), Guillaume Vermersch aka Buffalo (Christian Barbier), and Claude Ullmann aka Le Masque (Claude Mann). They are joined in their plight by Jean-François Jardie (Jean-Pierre Cassel), whose brother Luc Jardie (Paul Meurisse) is a respected scholar decorated by deGaulle, who is in fact the head of al resistance networks, and housewife Mathilde (Simone Signoret), one of the central movers in Gerbier’s team. Their plans go awry when Félix is captured by the Gestapo forcing Gerbier to mount an audacious rescue mission.
Having made his debut with the passive aggressive war themed film Le Silence de la mer, French auteur Jean-Pierre Melville returns to the subject very close to his own heart (he was a member of the French resistance) after a run of film noir crime dramas with this adaptation of Joseph Kessel’s 1943 novel of the same name. With added material reflecting on Melville’s own personal experiences Army Of Shadows is similar in vein to Le Silence in that it shows an unseen side of the war effort, offering a different perspective of the struggles endured by the ordinary people caught up in this tumultuous global dispute.
Despite the exciting Dirty Dozen-esque plot summary anyone expecting an action packed escapade will be sorely disappointed; this is a slow building, sombre and deliberately paced story about the people and not their actions. They may pull off some daring scams in the name of solidarity for their freedom fighting brethren, such as disguising themselves as Germans to gain access to the prison or parachuting into the heart of the Nazi stronghold but these are infrequent occurrences that demonstrate their fortitude rather than a blatant excuse to titillate the viewer.
Once the tone and direction of the film has been established this lack of bombastic excitement actually isn’t missed, leaving the implied pressures of being caught that hovers ominously over the heads of our protagonists to provide the dramatic end of the tale.
True to the understated nature of the story the characters are all “normal” looking, with the possible exception of blue eyed smooth operator Jardie who is the token good looking one of the group. Gerbier couldn’t look any less like a resistance fighter (does a resistance fighter have a look?) with his middle aged bank manager appearance making it easy for him to pass by the German oppressors without suspicion. That doesn’t mean that trouble is a distant prospect; wherever the crew go the threat of capture is omnipotent even in the most innocuous of places.
The beauty of the story is how they often mange to evade being caught either by the skin of their teeth or from sheer ingenuity. They are of course aided by a group of loyal fellow insurgents who will utilise every available resource to help each other attain their goal – be it an exchange of information, offering refuge or hands on participation in a mission.
Melville may have supplanted heavy action scenes for a detailed exploration into the planning and creation of these ingenious plots but it proves to be a deeply fascinating insight into an overlooked aspect of fighting a war, albeit a silent one based on survival and surreptitious anarchy. The film is built around the camaraderie of Gerbier’s cadre which slowly disintegrates under the pressure of duplicity, betrayal, lack of communication and the inevitable casualties.
It also exploits the power and benefits of secret networks and how they can operate right under the noses of the French higher ups and the enemy themselves, quite often with amazing results. Of course they are not always successful meaning they are literally shifting from one dilemma and hiding place to another.
It is with some interest that while the Germans are of course the nominal enemy of the tale they are presented as an almost invisible force of opposition for the resistance. In only two scenes are they shown to be vicious and callous brutes, leaving the true horrors of their exploits to be taken as read for the audience for the sake of allowing the focus to be spent on detailing the drama of the resistance network in operation.
The whole cast are superb in their roles, with veteran Simone Signoret bringing a subtle world weariness and gravitas to her portrayal as Mathilde, where she is tasked with assuming a number of different identities. Jean-Pierre Cassel shows the charisma his son Vincent has inherited but the film belongs to the central performance from Lino Ventura, who carries the emotional weight of the entire adventure on his shoulders with the same conviction and commitment as his character.
In one of those anomalous cases, this highly regarded film was not so warmly received upon its initial release, especially in France as it arrived not long after the infamous civil unrest of 1968 which began as opposition to then president Charles deGaulle, whom it was felt was glorified somewhat in this film. The film didn’t get a global release as a result and it wasn’t until the UK in 1978 that it was first appreciated while America didn’t get to see it until 2006!
For film fans who have previously missed out as a result this excellent looking Blu-ray release of Army Of Shadows is a fabulous way to discover what is a sober if perhaps a little long outing, offering a subtly layered and quietly haunting alternative to the typical explosive and divisive war film.