Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Army of Shadows (1969)

I avoid detailed synopses of films I’ve never seen. About Jean-Pierre Melville’s Army of Shadows I knew only this: it was a war film, about the French Resistance, depicted in images both intense and bleak.

This was still enough for me to build anticipation. I expected something alternately grim and thrilling, about men and women attempting to thwart the efforts of Nazi occupiers and Vichy collaborators without being captured, tortured, and forced to betray their own. And I wasn’t exactly wrong. Army of Shadows is about that. But while it has these elements in common with caper and escape films, on one hand, and more sympathy-driven human dramas on the other, what’s most striking about Army of Shadows is its nihilism. We finish it not with tears in our eyes for the sacrifice these men and women made, but shaking our heads for the contortions of spirit those terrible times forced them to make. 

The film’s opening shot is almost satirical. It is of the Arc de Triomphe, looking immense; and at its base, a tiny line of marching soldiers, looking very serious. The size of the monument turns them into mites, making their discipline absurd. France is great, but what of the men fighting to control it? 

Phillippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura) is one such man. He looks like a middle manager in a bank. In fact, he was a civil engineer of some note, we’re told, before the war; it’s all in the dossier his Vichy captors keep on him, and one of them reviews, when he’s being transferred to a prison camp.

Gerbier is an intelligent man whose emotions are sunk very deep. He has a gift for compartmentalizing his feelings; he’s able to analyze and acknowledge them and by doing so, leach them of power, leaving him free to do what must be done. We see him desperate, and afraid, but we rarely see him fail to act. Some of the acts we see him commit are distasteful. 

Well fine. It’s war. Gerbier and his fellow resisters, including youthful Jean-Francois (Jean-Pierre Cassel), nervous Felix (Paul Crauchet), and the hulking, simplistic Le Bison (Christian Barbier), never question the ultimate purpose of their actions; nor does the film itself. Like the Arc de Triomphe, the liberation of France looms huge over squabbles and crises of conscience—and any hesitations to kill—making them petty and temporary.

But the film is wise, too. It reminds us that the righteousness of a cause, though it might justify certain actions, does not eliminate the consequences of those actions. These are not, after all, men trained for war. Their patriotism, their heroism—their fear, their hate—propel them to fight, and they press on, still carrying much of their old selves with them. That isn’t easy. 

The standout among them is not a man at all. Madame Mathilde (Simone Signoret) is a middle-aged wife and mother, whose husband and child, we’re told, know nothing of her work with the underground. Steely and driven, strategic minded, she becomes a figure of awe to all the men she works with. Even in Gerbier’s guarded face we see a flicker of something for her. Signoret, aging but still attractive in 1969, looks rather ordinary here. Mathilde’s appeal to the men (most of them, anyway) isn’t sexual, but a product of respect, and also sentiment. Hard as she is, her womanhood still stirs in them a sense of something traditional, protectable, and good. 

Army of Shadows isn’t entirely a meditation. It has scenes that are action-heavy, and even strange—and these may be the scenes you remember best. That they feature people who look so ordinary, so un-soldier-like, make them that much more memorable. It is one thing to watch a Green Beret jump out of an airplane at night—it’s another to watch Gerbier do it, his glasses duct-taped to his face so they don’t fly off in the fall. “How did I get myself into this?” he seems to ask himself, his feet dangling in a hole in the belly of the plane, moments before he kills his doubt and slips through the opening into the night sky. 

In fact, the circumstances came to Gerbier, not the other way around; just as they did to all of his friends, both ordinary and extraordinary. All of them believe in their cause, which is why they do what they do, but they also believe they will succeed and live, which is how they can keep it up. When Gerbier parachutes back into France, he does so in the belief that he will land safely; even though he has never dived out of a plane in his life. Later, on his way to what may be a firing squad, we hear him tell himself, and therefore us, that he never believes that his own death is coming. As with other matters, he apprehends his true feelings, then cages them. 

This is all about faith, really. Faith in oneself; in the loyalty of one’s allies; in the support of one army, far away, and in the stupidity of another, very near. Faith in the face of grim odds. By the time Army of Shadows is through, we’re left wondering what becomes of a person who must rely on cynicism, ruthlessness, hope, and faith, in equal measure, to survive. To be pulled in so many directions risks being pulled apart. And still, there will be a country left to save. 

Where to find Army of Shadows:
Army of Shadows (L'Armée des ombres) screens Tuesday, July 17, 2012, at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox—part of the Summer in France programme. 

Army of Shadows is also available on DVD as part of The Criterion Collection.

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