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Film Review

Army of Shadows

(July 3, 2006) I have just seen what is easily the finest film of the year, and perhaps one of the twenty best that I have ever seen. Jean-Pierre Melville's Army of Shadows, released in Europe in 1969, but never shown commercially in this country, is now playing at the Balboa. Melville is well known for his gangster films, like Bob Le Flambeur, but he also made several films about the French Resistance which are little known here. The film is based on a 1943 novel by Joseph Kessel, but Melville's experience in the Resistance surely was vital. It is 1942, and the Germans have been occupying France for two years, which is now divided into a Vichy half under indirect German control, and the other half directly by the Germans. The Resistance had just begun to operate, but efficient German intelligence, aided by collaborators and death penalties for assisting the Resistance, had them constantly on the run.

Melville shows us a very small group of men (and one woman, but what a woman: Simone Signoret), fearful of betrayal and capture, short of weapons, only able to evade capture by constantly moving around, rather than sabotage and attacks on the Germans that is the stuff of so many films. De Gaulle, in England, commanded the Free French, and was desperately trying to get money and weapons into France for the few attempting to organize. The opening scene will stay with you forever: a long shot of the Arc de Triomphe, a military marching band coming alongside, turning and heading directly toward the camera. As they draw close, we see the German uniforms, and the camera freezes as the first marchers are almost on us.

Then we see a nicely dressed man in handcuffs, an engineer named Phillipe Gerbier, in the back of a police van as it is heading down a rainy country road. The policeman in back is chatting with Gerbier, who is cordial but controlled. His partner stops the van at a farmhouse for food, which has become increasingly scarce. Gerbier is interrogated by a French investigator, who almost narrates his thoughts in a low voice. And often thoughts are spoken by a narrator throughout the film. Gerbier ends up in a detention camp, which is the beginning of his odyssey. He ultimately escapes, in a scene that is unforgettable. In escaping he runs into a barber shop, and panting, asks for a shave. On the wall is a poster glorifying Marshall Petain, the Vichy chief. What are the barber's loyalties? Those moments of the shave and the aftermath are masterful. He rejoins a small group of men, who report to a chief for that region. They are ordered to meet, kidnap, and kill a young man who has betrayed others. None of them has ever killed anyone before, and they must kill him quietly so that the neighbors don't hear. These scenes are, again, unforgettable. Anonymity is often survival; two brothers, who think they know each other well, meet, have dinner, yet with each completely unaware of the other's important role in the Resistance. Much more happens but I do not want to reveal the many surprises. This is Melville's tribute to very brave men and women, and it is high tribute. We have the hindsight of knowing that France was liberated two years later, but in 1942 no one knew. The news was terribly pessimistic: the Allies were being defeated on every front. Most in the occupied countries collaborated or were passive; only a few actively resisted.

Army is a very powerful, yet understated and restrained film, but riveting, with constant tension. There is very little dialog; the characters largely communicate by glances, expressions, and subtle body language. We feel, in a removed sense, what the protagonists are feeling: anxiety and fear. We are living a tragedy, and parts of the film are heartbreaking. Although the film is in color, many of the scenes are at night or in dark rooms, with even the daylight scenes grayish and drained of color. It is distinctly noir, with each scene as perfectly composed as you will ever see. The coda is sudden and unexpected, and leaves you exhausted.

It is no exaggeration to call Army of Shadows a masterpiece. It is a product of genius. See it now as it will probably not end up on a DVD. A very appropriate film for the Fourth of July. Happy Birthday, America!

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