The Movie Waffler Re-Release Review - ARMY OF SHADOWS | The Movie Waffler

Re-Release Review - ARMY OF SHADOWS

Army of Shadows review
In occupied France, an engineer leads a cell of resistance fighters.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Jean-Pierre Melville

Starring: Lino Ventura, Paul Meurisse, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Simone Signoret Claude Mann, Paul Crauchet

Army of Shadows poster

The evocatively titled WWII resistance thriller Army of Shadows is based on a wartime account by author Joseph Kessel but benefits greatly from director Jean-Pierre Melville's familiarity with its subject, having himself been a member of the French resistance. It employs an episodic structure, with some of its events taken from Kessel's book while others are fictional accounts possibly inspired by Melville's own experiences. The opening text - "Bad memories, welcome nonetheless, you are my youth" - suggests his time in the resistance had a profound effect on Melville. How could it not?

Living through a time when loose lips could sink ships clearly influenced the taciturn anti-heroes of Melville's crime films, men who know one slip-up can spell doom and so avoid expressing emotion. The central figure of Army of Shadows, resistance cell leader Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura) is an archetypal Melville protagonist, quiet and considered, always planning his next move or an emergency escape route. His rotund, bespectacled figure gives him the appearance of one of those enigmatic latin football managers, a Marcelo Bielsa type who is in his element when planning his tactics but who sweats in contemplative silence during the match.

Army of Shadows review

The movie follows Gerbier and the men and women under his command as they plan and execute various operations, not all of which succeed. Danger is ever-present, death never more than one mistake away. Everyone is respected, but nobody can be trusted. The members of Gerbier's cell aren't the handsome young romantic heroes of most tales of rebellion (save for a rather dashing former pilot played by the chiselled Jean-Pierre Cassel). For the most part they're middle-aged, paunchy and balding men who look more like insurance salesmen than soldiers. The men are joined by a woman, Mathilde (Simone Signoret), whose ability to hatch devious plans sees her adopted as Gerbier's second-in-command.

The tense, nervy tone is set in an early scene that sees Gerbier, having fled Gestapo questioning into the Parisian night, hide in a barber shop where he requests a shave to maintain his cover. Not a word is exchanged between Gerbier and the barber (a cameo from Serge Reggiani) as the two men silently suss out one another's allegiances. As Gerbier departs, the barber insists that he take his coat. For the resistance, small gestures like this from men who want to play a part but lack the courage to bear arms, are as vital to the effort as bullets and bombs.

Army of Shadows review

The lack of romanticism sees Gerbier and his allies commit what would in any other time be considered war crimes. There's a guelling scene in which a young traitor must be killed (no doubt the inspiration for a similar sequence in Ken Loach's The Wind That Shakes the Barley). The men agree the foul deed must be done, but they argue over the most humane way to deal with the collaborator. Ultimately, his killing is brutal regardless. Later on the men must reluctantly execute someone they've long respected, not because they believe them to be treacherous, but because it's simply a chance they can't risk.

The heroes of Army of Shadows have haunted faces, drained of life like the ghosts we know they will soon inevitably become. The movie itself is similarly drained of colour, with most of the action playing out under overcast skies or in day for night sequences that paint the French sky an ethereal shade of blue that would later be aped by Michael Mann in his own Melvillean crime thrillers. Most scenes are unaccompanied by music. When Gerbier finds himself in London he can't believe his eyes when he stumbles into a speakeasy and sees male and female soldiers dancing and flirting to swing music; it's as if he crossed the channel and entered another world.

Army of Shadows review

Due to its hero's Gaullist allegiances, Army of Shadows was denounced by the communist sympathising French critics of 1969, and the poor reviews meant it was barely seen outside France in many territories until decades later. That seems quaint even by today's standards of polarising politics, and few modern viewers will have an issue sympathising with the Nazi-fighting heroes of Melville's film. The resistance here is comprised of men and women with diverse political and philosophical beliefs, from young communists to elderly land barons. For those who recently scoffed at the notion of California and Texas allying in Alex Garland's Civil War, Army of Shadows is an explicit reminder of how quickly differences are set aside once jackboots begin to march down a city's equivalent of the Champs-Élysées. Flags may come in different colours, but they all cast grey shadows.

Army of Shadows
 is on bluray, DVD and VOD from Studiocanal on June 3rd.