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Army of Shadows - Criterion Collection (1969)

Art House & International and Classics movie

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Army of Shadows -- even with long silences it is an intense movie

  • Oct 13, 2010

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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More Army of Shadows - Criterion Co... reviews
review by . April 15, 2011
A grim, austere masterpiece of the French resistance, by Jean-Pierre Melville
"...but I'm going to die and I'm not afraid. It's impossible not to be afraid of dying. But I'm too stubborn, too much of an animal to believe it. If I don't believe it to the very last moment, the last split second, I'll never die."       This is Philippe Gerbier speaking. The time is between October, 1942 and February, 1943. He's the leader of a resistance cell in German-occupied France. He was an engineer. Now he is a hard man of …
review by . May 16, 2007
posted in Movie Hype
Director Jean-Pierre Melville drew from his own experiences of The French Resistance during World War II to make the same-titled novel into an inspired movie. Capturing the gamut of participants and demonstrating that not all of the French were on board, 'Army of Shadows' zeroes in on some of the more effective players who must operate with nerves of steel to sneak around, outfox, and escape from their German occupiers and undermine their influence.     Protagonist Phillippe …
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Who would've guessed that the best film of 2006 would be a 37-year-old thriller about the French Resistance during World War II? Hailed as a masterpiece by an overwhelming majority of reputable critics, Jean-Pierre Melville'sArmy of Shadowswasn't officially released in America until 2006 (hence its appearance on many of that year's top-ten lists), but its reputation as a French classic was already well-established throughout Europe. Fully restored in 2004 and released in the U.S. by Rialto Pictures, it represents the gold standard of films about the French Resistance, based upon Joseph Kessel's 1943 novel and imbued with personal touches by Melville, an Alsatian Jew whose own involvement in the Resistance qualifiesArmy of Shadowsas a semi-autobiographical exercise in somber nostalgia, as indicated by an opening quote echoing Melville's ironic belief that memories of Nazi occupation needn't always be traumatic.

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 ...

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Genre: Foreign
DVD Release Date: May 15, 2007
Runtime: 145 minutes
Studio: Criterion Collection
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"Nerves of Steel"
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