The Army of Shadows (released in 1969, directed by Jean-Pierre Melville) is, off the top of my current head, unique. The film’s engine is a plot that relies on the audience knowing a good amount of history but the fuel that keeps it going are the performances. The actors are stone-faced throughout; they do a good job of expressing anxiety and fear through body language, but their faces almost never show what is really happening. The Army of Shadows is the best film I have seen in months and months.
The plot could fit on the slip in a fortune cookie. We see a band of about seven members of the French Resistance at work during 1942 when Western Europe was under the “False War:” no appreciable action on that front due to the Soviet offensive several months before. This band of people show how the mechanism works and what happens when it doesn’t (this was a binary period in history). They do not work on any grand scheme; we are not privy to some super secret information. The audience is only told that things have happened or will (like night parachute drops) but never the act itself. With punctuated exceptions, the film is told in this indirect manner.
Pierre Gerbier (Lino Ventura) is what amounts to a colonel level operative in the Resistance. He uses his small band (Jean Francois (Jean Pierre Cassel), Mathilde (Dimone Signoret), Le Masque (Claude Mann), Felix (Paul Crauchet) and Le Bison (Christian Barbier)) to disrupt what it can of the Nazis in France. As I said above, we get no specifics. Much attention is given to attacks on a Gestapo prison for what amounts to personal reasons. Again, though, this is for personal reasons—it does disrupt part of the machine but not a huge part. Each performance was brilliant for the reasons mentioned above. In fact, Mr. Ventura looked much like Inspector Clouseau (so blank faced even when he was about to parachute for the first time that he seemed more parody than not) but his interactions with the rest of his cell showed far more brightly and tragically than the foppish character he resembled.
The narrative can be frustrating and requires the viewer to be relaxed. Mr. Melville employs silence the same way many directors today rely on special effects. It took me a while to determine what was happening. At first I thought it was just a Continental pretence meant as a sort of inside joke. This is absolutely not the case. The silence is the driving metaphor.
The Resistance was put in this position with regards to silence: existing at all meant breaking silence, but they had to do so very carefully. As with any organization made of anonymous cells, there is silence from one group to the next. There is as much silence (secrecy) within each cell to keep noise and knowledge at the lowest possible timbre. So Mr. Melville’s scenes of silence with slow pans to show the surroundings at first seem boring, but as I got to know the characters and the situation better, I understood that the silence was intended to (and certainly did) build tension.
The story is set in France in 1942. The war was not active at the time, but the occupation was. The Germans were “relatively” quiet but could be brought into quick action if there were any reason to suspect the Resistance or anything resembling it was about to cause problems. So threats will occur, brutality will occur, bullets will fly. This is what I meant when I said the indirect narrative choice and lengthy silences were punctuated.
The film seemed to be shot through a camera with an ashy filter since everything was gray. Whether intended or not, this sense of partial shadow throughout made the title make visual sense, since the name itself already existed as a metaphor for the Resistance.
Finally, the film was made at a time of upheaval throughout the West and part of the East. Focusing only on France, there were student riots, governments teetered, fell, teetered, lost control, gained it a little due to heavy police action and lost it again. Mr. Melville filmed during this time or immediately after. I say this more as a footnote to irony. France was disintegrating in a morass of intellectual nonsense and a sense of general anger and frustration. During this period, Mr. Melville chose a topic that covered the most recent time when the idea of “France” had only one real meaning. The French are nothing if not masters of irony.
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Having lived through this history, Melville doesn't treat it lightly; in Army of Shadows, the threat of death hangs over every scene like a shroud. Unfolding with flawless precision, the plot begins in 1942 and focuses on a small, secretive band of Resistance fighters led by Gerbier (Lino Ventura), whose intuitive sense of danger lends additional suspense to the film's dark, atmospheric study of grace under pressure. While working in the classical tradition of the Hollywood films he admired, Melville breaks from convention with ...