Army of Shadows
May 21, 2007
For reasons that are still unknown, Jean-Pierre Melville’s Army of Shadows (1969) was never distributed in North America. It wasn’t until April 2006 that it finally enjoyed a theatrical release on that continent. Who so long? Was it perhaps Melville’s complex study of a group of French Resistance fighters during World War II that scared off distributors? Or the refusal to provide clearly defined good guys and bad guys? Or was it the initial panning of the then-influential French film magazine Cahiers du cinema that encouraged a disinterest in America? Regardless of the causes, Melville’s film is now getting its long overdue re-appraisal from critics and enjoying the deluxe treatment from the folks at the Criterion Collection.
Based on Joseph Kessel’s book of the same name and drawing on his experiences in the French Resistance and the German occupation of France, Army of Shadows takes place in 1942 and focuses mainly on Philippe Gerbier (Ventura), a civil engineer and the head of a small cell of resistance fighters. As the film begins, he has been arrested and brought to a prisoners-of-war camp. There, he meets average citizens from all walks of life and from various ethnic and cultural backgrounds (Russians, Yugoslavs, Romanians, Czechs, etc.) who were imprisoned for what seems like harmless dissent. Life is harsh in this camp as one prisoner dies one night without a sound and is subsequently unceremoniously taken away.
A fellow prisoner tells Gerbier of a potential escape plan and picks him because of his importance to the Resistance. Melville shoots Army of Shadows in his trademark low-key, economical style. Even when Gerbier makes his daring escape from a Nazi embassy, the director resists the urge to use flashy camerawork but this doesn’t make the sequence any less urgent or intense.
Gerbier meets with fellow resistance member Felix (Crauchet) and they deal with the traitor that ratted Gerbier out. They kill the man but it is done in a very patient, dispassionate way – almost matter-of-factly and yet the scene is filled with drama as neither man has killed before. It’s a fascinating juggling act that Melville pulls off effortlessly as Amy Taubin points out in her essay included in the accompanying booklet, “Those who come to the film with expectations of romantic heroes and daring action sequences that culminate in uplifting endings…will be bewildered and disappointed.”
Melville drains Army of Shadows of any potential heroism to present inherently tragic characters that never get to see the results of their dangerous work. Death is not treated lightly in this film and, for example, Melville shows how Gerbier and his men deal with the guilt of having to kill a man who betrayed them. It really comes down to a matter of survival. If they don’t kill him then he will give them up to the Nazis again and they will be killed. Even with this knowledge, it doesn’t make the task any easier.
The first disc features an audio commentary by film historian Ginette Vincendeau. She points out how Melville used a drab colour palette and melancholic music to establish a tragic tone. She expertly analyzes the director’s economic style and its effect on the film’s subject matter. Vincendeau also displays an excellent knowledge of the historical aspects of the time period depicted in this very informative track.
Also included is the original release trailer and the U.S. re-release trailer.
Disc two starts off with “Jean-Pierre Melville, Filmmaker,” a television news segment from 1968 that reports on Melville’s film while it was being made with vintage footage of the director on location and of him talking about it and how he works with actors.
There is an interview with “Pierre Lhomme,” the film’s director of photography and a restoration demonstration that he personally supervised. He describes Melville as a very authoritarian director and talks about the man’s working methods. He speaks admiringly of Melville’s place in cinema and how he was a role model for the French New Wave.
Also included is an interview the film’s editor, “Francoise Bonnot” who talks about her work on Army of Shadows and what it was like to work with Melville. Her mother used to edit his films and so she great up with him and watched her mother work, learning the craft in the process. She describes Melville as very precise and he knew exactly what he wanted.
“L’invite du dimanche” was a popular French T.V. show that dedicated an episode to the movie when it was released in 1969 and featured footage of Melville making the movie with interviews with him and key cast members.
“Melville et ‘L’armee des ombres’” is a half-hour retrospective documentary that reunites a few surviving cast and crew members who revisit the film and talk about their experiences making it. During WWII, Melville was a member of the Resistance and incorporated some of his experiences in the film, making this one of his most personal efforts.
Finally, there is “The Resistance,” a collection of featurettes pertaining to the underground movement in France, including documentary footage of their victory in Paris; an interview with Lucie Aubrac, the inspiration for Mathilde in the movie and the actress who played her, Simone Signoret; and actual resistance members interviewed in 1973.