Dir. Jean-Pierre Melville. Starring Lino Ventura, Simone Signoret, Christian Barbier
Melville, whose track record with the French Resistance had a great influence on his future filmmaking career (not least of which was his name, a nom de guerre from the guerre itself), frequently begins his films with epigraphs. Not all of them work for me—looking at you, Le Cercle Rouge—but the one which precedes Army of Shadows is so personal and raw that it inflects the movie with power from the beginning. “Bad memories, I welcome you anyway,” it says. “You are my long lost youth.” Melville was twenty-two when France fell to the Nazis, and the first shot of the movie features a Nazi column marching, with musicians at its head, by the Arc de Triomphe. After the credits, in one of two scenes to get a date attached to it, the truck taking Gerbier (Ventura) to a concentration camp rolls along as “October 20th” sits above it: what should we make of the fact that it’s Melville’s birthday? The sum of the deeds Melville heard of, completed, or otherwise knew during the war is basically unknowable now, and the film itself is based on a novel published in 1943. Even so, Army of Shadows feels awfully personal, even compared to other Resistance movies like Le silence de la mer or Leon Morin, Priest. Above all, it is no less pessimistic than its contemporary, The Sorrow and the Pity. Melville, like Marcel Ophuls, seems bound and determined to eviscerate the myths of Gallic heroism during the war; the characters in the story are shown in various states of failure, rarely winning any sort of victory over the innumerable Nazi host.
There’s a long lull in Army of Shadows, perhaps because it is a movie built on episodes, eschewing an overall plot structure for the smaller scale stories of this doomed Resistance cell. Felix (Paul Crauchet), probably Gerbier’s most important lieutenant, is captured by the Nazis while Gerbier is in London. A newer recruit, Jean-Francois (Jean-Pierre Cassel) disappears, although it turns out that he has taken the initiative to get himself arrested to find and support Felix in prison. When he finds out that Felix has been snared, Gerbier makes a somewhat haphazard parachute drop over France which is about as close as the film gets to comic relief. Mathilde (Signoret) proves herself to be the most creative Frenchwoman in Marseille, using disguise after disguise to make as much headway as anyone else in the Resistance. And it soaks that way for some time, mostly in various shades of oceanic blue-green that look the same whether it’s indoor, outdoor, morning, night. The film lingers in this quiet buildup, even when it makes the story maybe a little anticlimactic, as it is in the case of the rescue attempt for Felix. We hear more and more narration in the voices of the characters, a choice I thought was unnecessary at first before it became obvious that it was brilliant; Mathilde’s audacity turns out to be tremendously important later on in the movie as she becomes the real engine of the Marseille Resistance. What is most obvious is that as fast as these people run, the Nazis are far, far ahead. Even when they talk to the Resistance leadership in London, guns are too difficult to send them back home with. The great success of the Resistance is their ability to smuggle radio transmitters around, which is obviously important and profoundly unsexy compared to the typical gun-totin’ assassins we tend to associate with the group.
Gerbier’s second stint in prison sees him up against a machine gun squad. (The first stint ended with him using another convict as bait, running one way while he killed a guard and then ran a different way. Melville’s films specialize in blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moments like that one, emphasized by his willingness to cut away from an expression or tableau half a beat before anyone else would.) Like him, I assumed he was dead meat, but the German officer presiding over the execution of a handful of rebels has something else in mind, presumably to kill the boredom. The prisoners are set up at the midpoint of a long tunnel, between the machine gun and a wall. Whoever makes it to the wall first, the Nazi officer says, will be executed with a different group of prisoners at a later date. He gives the signal for them all to run, but Gerbier refuses to move. I won’t run, he thinks to himself. I won’t give him the satisfaction. (It’s the moment when the narration becomes totally essential.) Even when a bullet lands at his feet, he doesn’t stir, and then another one strikes, and he bolts. It is emblematic of Melville’s grim reminiscences, a moment which knows that a martyr would stand firm but that a human being made of flesh would fly. It’s when the movie grabs you once again, so tightly that you can smell the last cigarettes the prisoners just hastily smoked in the knowledge that they wouldn’t get another. Nor does it let you go; Army of Shadows spends the last forty-five minutes with a stranglehold on the viewer, from Gerbier’s unlikely escape to the grimy shack where he recuperates to the terrible job he and his men are assigned to complete by the top Resistance leader in France, a man named Jardie who is hiding in plain sight (Paul Meurisse).
The one person this Resistance cell seems able to kill is one of their own. Dounat (Alain Libolt) looks like he just escaped from some college campus, but that’s old enough to betray Gerbier and sign his own death warrant. Le Masque (Claude Mann), Le Bison (Barbier), Felix, and Gerbier are the team dispatched to execute the traitor, a species of humanity that Thomas Jefferson ought to have included in his watering can alongside the patriots and tyrants. Dounat is obviously terrified, and the more the others speak it’s clear that none of them really want any part in the job themselves. Le Masque reports that a nearby house is currently occupied, which is a change from when the Resistance took on the house where the murder will occur. (Now would be a great time to have those silencers we can’t get from the British, one of them says.) Le Bison has stayed with the car, and his knife is unavailable to the conspirators. Dounat’s eyes continue to widen, but he is either too scared or too resigned to run, even when Gerbier orders him strangled. Le Masque has become increasingly agitated throughout the entire episode; do you think any of us know what we’re doing? Gerbier asks him, and in that moment it becomes clear that even though each of these men have probably killed in the past, none of them have ever had to execute a comrade. What was rousing becomes horrifying, and there can be no triumph even in the extermination of vermin. When this same group is called upon to execute a Resistance member who has named a pair of others from the cell, it becomes clear that the practice they got on Dounat has not made their task any simpler. Le Bison in particular is adamant that he will not raise a hand against the traitor, not even when Jardie feeds him a good story about the snitch’s intentions. Unsurprisingly, Le Bison is the one who shoots down the traitor, because duty is the watchword of the Resistance, and because there is no sin that anyone will have to live with for more than another few months. The film’s epilogue, as it is, makes it clear that even the “survivors,” the ones who could most accurately tell the story of the fatal hardships of the Resistance, will never live long enough to do so.