Jean-Pierre Melville Season – Army Of Shadows (1969)
Right until the end of post-production Melville wrestled with the placement of the striking tableau of the Arc du triumph, isolated in long shot, with a long snaking line of Wehrmacht officers proudly goosesteeping their way to Hitler’s drumbeat of genocidal European conquest. It’s a striking image that opens Army Of Shadows, Melville’s third and final entry to his occupation trilogy of films, begun with Le Silence de la mer in 1949 and buttressed with Léon Morin, Prêtre in 1962. Shot in perpetual, gloomy rain this adaption of Joseph’s Kessell’s 1943 book is presented without mercy, without glamour or exciting derring-do, a somber recreation of the suicidal operations, furtive failures and cold victories of the resistance movement in occupied France, so let’s just say that Allo, Allo this is most definitely not. Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura) is spirited away to a remote, decrepit prison camp, incarcerating a mosaic of insurgents in 1942 occupied France, forcing Franco loyalists, Trade Union agitators, communists and loyal French terrorists to rub shoulders as common criminals by the omnipotent, occupying Reich. Like Melville’s stern criminal constellation the setting is different but the game is essentially same, a sense of moral stricture in a cold netherworld, a nest of violence and nihilism which can quickly be silenced by a final bark of a luger or thrust of a bayonet, of trenchcoated men with their collars turned up against the elements traversing sparse, dispassionate environments, like wraiths hunted through some Sisyphean maze. Informers and infiltrators are even more deadly here as the stakes are more lethal than a simple spell in the joint, as the slightest digression from full and complete devotion to your cause will have you facing a squalid firing squad and a shallow ditch out in the wilderness, a relatively comfortable fate in comparison to the prolonged torture and mutilation of not only you but also your family, should you dare to resist your oppressor. All you need to do to sense just how serious and committed Melville was to telling this story as realistically and respectfully to his own experiences and those of his comrades is to compare and contrast with the contemporaries, the Second World War films of the late 1960’s. These were the preserve of boys-own adventure yarns like Hannibal Brooks, Where Eagles Dare, The Bridge At Remagen or The Guns Of Navarone, fun rainy bank holiday viewing to be sure but not exactly accurate musings on the cold mechanics of a ruthless life and death struggle for liberation under a remorseless and brutal occupying force, with Clint singlehandedly mowing down faceless swarms of gormless Wehrmacht redshirts while Oliver Reed made friends with an elephant.
The tempo and temperature of the film soon becomes clear, as Melville’s posture is set a diametric dimension away from the active mission statements of the war movie. Army of Shadows is grim, as cold and precarious as the knife edge lives lived by the warriors resisting the Gestapo ghouls, with torture and death lurking as a near certainty behind every mission, every dead letter drop, and every friendly and non-friendly interaction. As we have seen Melville is a keen minimalist and his craft is honed to perfection here, there is virtually no soundtrack so the soundscape is primarily a diagetic dirge, a tense echo chamber which informs the keen fly on the wall vérité of clandestine meetings and risky laden reconnaissance. Mostly studio bound the locations are sparse and simple in appearance, kept under Melville vice like grip in his private shooting boudoir, erecting a somewhat artificial framework to the drama but not distractingly so. The various theatres of operations does shift across nations and cities however to provoke the sense of a countrywide network, even if the attention remains on one cell of insurgents and their individual intertwined fates. What do two of the resistance members do when they find themselves with some precious R&R time? This is a brief respite between operations after their secret submarine sojourn to London to lobby for more weapons and logistics, so how do they set their mind against the existential terror of the nightly black-out of the pulverizing blitz? Well, they go to the cinema of course, and joke that when they’ve won the war they’ll be able to see all the films restricted by Goebbels wretched censorship control of the occupied territories. The structure of the film is a linked series of vignettes, task after task mapped to incident and incident, a slow chain of drama and threat which slowly builds a picture of resistance as a psychic entity, as a state of mind, the French body politic bent to liberation rather than a mere collection of sparsely effective agents, assassins and provocateurs. The minimalism extends to the terms of emotion, dialogue and performance, with the cells struggle amberfied in a diluted cold teal color palette, as bleak and unforgiving as the canvass of his more expressionistic crime films.
A spare, near dispassionate voiceover briefs us on the mechanics of the missions, a linking thread which The fidelity to the genuine activities and risks of the insurrection are fascinating, the film feels extremely realistic and insightful into how it really must have been, unvarnished with any false heroics and draped in the constant threat of discovery and betrayal, never knowing when the Gestapo could have got to colleagues or family members them and flipped them to save their own skins. The commentary of the French authorities colluding with the enemy was extremely controversial of course, but Melville presents as is facts which have since been accepted as documentary fact, gendarmes manning roadblocks and apprehension of so-called enemies of the state, the continuation of day-to day enforcement of legislation and criminal suppression which now speaks to Berlin instead of the Palais Bourbon. Army Of Shadows most memorable and disturbing scene concerns the killing of a former comrade who has been forced into collaboration, a Judas who circumstance dictates he must be made an example of in order to deter other offensive breaches of the resistance’s protective omertà. Melville stages this in a carefully controlled procession of shots, moving from tableau to close-up to make it clear that the perpetrators are not trained killers, maybe civil servants, or accountants, or businessmen before the war now plunged into literal life and death struggle, forcing them to shed blood in a rather clumsy and confused operation. It a rather pathetic and dingy execution that is quite difficult to watch, with zero in the way of moral judgement or dramatic posturing, just another moral pitfall which is the price of their brave and sustained struggle. In fact the violence throughout the film is staged for realism and uncomfortable consequence, an arbitrary, swift and remorseless fact of life, presented with an absolute minimum of detail to make the point, not expanded or celebrated for dramatic heft or excitement. This sword of Damocles shadows all the members of the resistance, as they seem to operate as an isolated solitary cell rather than a node in some countrywide network, adrift and fragile to interception and infiltration which saturates the film with a smothering sense of paranoia.
From the single thread the narrative flowers to encompass the experiences of an individual cell of fighters and their furtive day to day struggle, including a small but significant role for Simone Signoret of Le Diabolique fame. The episodic narrative pushes into some strange roads such as a tense caper when the team infiltrate a Gestapo facility in order to prevent a captured colleague betraying his connections under brutal and sustained torture. In another scene the quiet support and appreciation of the general populace is expressed when a fleeing warrior is given refuge and succour from the prowling eyes of the occupying ogres. These vignettes and asides slowly drain to an anguishing moral nexus, when one of the key members of the group is forced to collaborate in order to defend their family from a mortal threat of sustained torture, despite their child’s individual innocence – the sins of the mothers being laid to the daughter in this case. This is the final mortal quandary of the film, where comrades whom have risked their lives to save each other are trapped into making the most lethal of recriminations without hesitation, knowing that their former comrade would expect and deserves no less. At two hours and twenty minutes Army Of Shadows is a long, sustained experience which earns the attention, supported with a solid tranche of extras including a making-of documentary, a five minute behind the scenes featurette, a BFI newsreel of the Paris liberation with some graphic battle footage and a superior commentary from Professor Ginette Vincendeau, one of the world’s leading Melville scholars. It’s interesting that like Kubrick (and both only made 13 features during their long careers) Melville was something of a telephone addict, he would keep colleagues and potential collaborators on the line for hours and hours, bleeding them dry of information and ideas to feed his voracious intellectual appetite – I always ponder how those great minds would utilize todays communication media in order to sate those insatiable instincts. This is crucial Melville, one of the key films of his long and distinguished career, and this leaves us with just one final entry to close down this season before shifting our caméra-stylo to the land of the rising sun during the feudal sengoku period. But until then and our final foray into Melville’s muted universe Army Of Shadows is as cold and unforgiving a treatment on the moral and mortal cost of war as the cinema has had to offer, with resistance as much a state of mind as a physical, fragile reality;