Army of Shadows (1969)
Director: Jean-Pierre Melville
Cast: Lino Ventura, Paul Meurisse, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Simone Signoret
Plot: A account of underground resistance fighters in Nazi-occupied France.
Rating: PG for mature themes.
International Sales: Tamasa Distribution
IN RETROSPECT (Spoilers: NO)
"See you later, Comrade."
"You're a communist?"
"No. But I can still have comrades."
A fictionalization yet realistic portrayal of what it must have been (and felt) like being part of the French Resistance during WWII, Jean-Pierre Melville's superb classic is one of his very top works, with some critics proclaiming it to be his finest, even among such influential and auteuristic works as Le Samourai (1967) and Le Cercle Rouge (1970). Whatever the case, most if not all would agree that Army of Shadows is his most personal work.
Melville was part of the French Resistance himself, and while his film has been accused of having Gaullist sympathies, that shouldn't take away the haunting power of this landmark film of sorts. Only theatrically released in the States more than three decades after it was made, Army of Shadows is like a time capsule buried underground only to be unearthed as a gem. If anything, it compels us to go back in time to re-evaluate and re-appreciate Melville's underrated body of works.
Army of Shadows is about the state of being. It is concerned with psychological realism, the interior meaning within the characters. Faced with pressure, fear and at times isolation, Melville depicts these characters as suffering yet resolute in very dire situations. Like Alain Delon’s character in Le Samourai, these quiet rebels have a strong sense of code and honour. All these things make up most of what Army of Shadows is trying to express.
Opening with a two-minute wide still shot of the Nazis marching in front of the Arc de Triomphe, Melville immediately hooks us, but through the course of the film, it may not feel as consistently engaging. The atmospheric, sometimes sparse filmmaking style calls to attention its intentionally slow pacing, the low-lit settings and lack of narrative thrust, which on hindsight gives the picture a sort of inertia that imbues in the characters a feeling of vulnerable stasis.
In some way the cinematography and mood reminds me of Tomas Alfredson's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011), the somewhat off-the-radar Gary Oldman spy-thriller which could have been influenced by Melville's work here. Despite its glacial pacing, Army of Shadows compels with its excellent casting and acting, detailed psychological examination of men (and woman) under duress, and the unmistakable sense of melancholic evocation of a harrowing past.
Verdict: Slow but prodding, this moody piece detailing the state of mind of several members of the French Resistance during WWII, is both bleak and powerful.
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