Thomas Lowery, Contributing Writer
Army of Shadows, Jean-Pierre Melville’s tale of World War II French Resistance Fighters, is every bit as mighty and grand as those tales by the American Melville, after whom this French master of cinema stage-named himself.
There is little dispute that it is a great film, and yet for years it was held in abeyance after a poor initial reception during its European premiere in 1969. Leftist Parisians unfairly derided it for its Gaullist sympathies, and this early negative word-of-mouth went a long way. When news reached these shores that the movie wasn’t good, it was promptly denied a release. Melville’s epic, stamped with such passion, personal sentiment and meticulous craft, had died, barely having seen the light of day.
Fortunately, Melville’s status as a filmmaker did not perish. After his death in 1973, he gained prominence through the years, not only as a preeminent auteur, but also as the father of the French New Wave.
The fact that Army of Shadows had been unjustly shoved into a dark corner became more and more apparent, until finally in 2006, 37 years after its original release, it found a home in American theaters. Unsurprisingly, exuberant fans and critics alike were quick to declare it Melville’s masterpiece.
What’s striking about the film is that although Melville has intensely deep feelings about the entire project (he personally took part in the Resistance), there’s very little feeling or emotion actually presented in the movie. It’s not because it is coldhearted or cynical, but because it so strongly adheres to the impassive nature of the Resistance.
The fighters in the movie, led by Lino Ventura as Phillipe Gerbier, are deeply human, and if they were in another line of work they would probably be the best of friends. But here their relationships cannot extend beyond a smile or a nod. To be a fighter one must be intelligent and willing to risk one’s life, but, most importantly, a fighter must be devoid of emotional attachments.
Melville doesn’t tell us any of this, but shows it through the film’s sense of ceaseless dread and unease, its palette of grey hues and nighttime skies, and through scenes in which fighters are killed for their very human errors.
That Army of Shadows is devoid of emotion is the very reason it’s such an achingly human story. It is not so much when we see a person’s emotional side that we are moved, but rather it is when we see someone fighting to hold back emotion because he is loyal, knows his duty and has a job to do. It is that fight, that struggle that makes him human.
Here’s a film that is intense and exciting, but I would hesitate to call it an action movie or even a thriller. There are many scenes that would be at home in a summer blockbuster, and yet their purpose is something other than to provide a pulse in the viewer. It’s all about a mindset, a sense that the paranoia and fear are somehow worth the struggle.
So when we see a disguised female fighter arrive at a Nazi hospital to “transfer” a wounded prisoner, she shows complete indifference when she learns the prisoner will be dead soon anyway. Since revealing any sign of objection or emotion would give her away, she simply gets back in the ambulance and leaves. We know she feels deeply for this man, but nobody else can know.