Thursday, January 21, 2010

#385: Army of Shadows

(Jean-Pierre Melville, 1969)

Jean-Pierre Melville (who did indeed take his name from the American author) has been often overlooked among French directors of the 50s and 60s. Because he was not associated with the New Wave - and was in fact criticized by their Cahiers du Cinema for this very film - his films have only recently been rediscovered and reconsidered. Le Samurai is his most well-known film, and it is an inarguable masterpiece that transcends its gangster genre without looking down on it.

This film was only released in America in 2006, 37 years after it was made, thanks to the negative reaction it received from French critics. That turns out to be quite the travesty, as this is clearly another great film.

The film depicts the French resistance in a way that is both surreal and hyper-realistic to the point of being a procedural. Yet its core is a sense of fatalism and crushing sadness. I spent the two and a half hours watching this movie tense in ways normally reserved for thrillers, in awe of the beautiful color palette and preciseness of the direction, but mostly and persistently nagged by the question of whether or not I could do it. If the Nazis came to take over your country, what would you do?

Army of Shadows makes clear that there is no easy answer, that the cowardly thing means accepting your own inability to thrive, but the honorable thing means living with your own guilt at taking the steps necessary to survive. In one scene, terrifyingly realistic in its banality, three of the Resistance members argue over how to murder a traitor that is standing right in front of them, watching as they debate the safest way to snub out his life. The murder is committed in a simple and efficient manner. It is survival in this world, yet there is always a sense that these extraordinary circumstances do not forgive ordinary sins.

Perhaps the most polarizing scene in the film is an escape from a tunnel midway through. The reaction to this scene will most likely depend on how believable you need the movie to be. Is this a metaphorical look at what these fighters went through, not just battling the Germans, but battling their own sense of self? Or did these things really happen like Melville says they did? The main character is told to run towards the end of a tunnel with a group of prisoners, and if he reaches the wall first before the Germans had shot him with a machine gun, he would live to do the same thing the next day. He tells a comrade later he might not have run, and would have just stood there. Because of the other men, she asks? No, he says. Because he couldn't help but think about how sure the guard was that he would run, like a frightened rabbit.

Therein lies the question of Army of Shadows, a rare tragedy about heroism.

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