Army of Shadows (1969) and The French Resistance

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Army of Shadows is another film from Jean Pierre-Melville that falls back into the realm of the autobiographical, even as it’s based on a book by French journalist Joseph Kessel. Because Melville, a resistance fighter himself, had a previous history with this very same world. The names and dates were real, living history for him, and he gladly blended it all into his movie.

It’s also defined by the director’s well-established palette of choice. True to form, it leans into his typically dismal and dour canvass as an overt extension of its characters’ malaise. A rainbow proves a total impossibility in a Melville picture. Equally surprising is a smile on a face or an intonation of laughter.

In the opening interludes, a prison van takes a detour past a rural cottage to pick up a couple basket of provisions. It’s a curious juxtaposition and somehow a fitting bit of exposition about our setting. Because Army of Shadows is a modest epic if you will, ably covering all the ambiguities of an institution like Vichy while simultaneously documenting the moral gradient of good and evil Hannah Arendt so perceptively termed “banal.”

Our hero is a bespectacled, well-mannered man named Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura); he also happens to be a vital member of the underground. Hence his arrest and sentence to a local camp. He seems unphased by the whole ordeal as if he’s been here many times before. It’s all unextraordinary after the countless things he must have seen and done.

The subsequent inner monologues are honest if not pedestrian, perfectly in line with the world being developed. Because it’s a film as much about expressions as it is words. Reading over people, waiting, biding time, and weighing the options laid out. In these early instances, Ventura establishes himself as an apt hero, given our context.

In this unsparing portrait of the war years — at the same time both moral and unsentimental — he’s the perfect barometer of the times, rarely showing emotions. He dare not. You come to understand why, when faced with the ordeal of having to dispose of one of your own — a craven traitor — for the good of the outfit.

The zealous young recruit Le Masque (Claude Mann) is eager to do his part, but he’s quickly stripped of his illusions. What follows is a devastating death scene — implied though it may be — because it effectively takes away all pretense of heroes and villains. It sets a precedent for the entire picture and where it will dare to go in order to pay homage to those who went before. One shudders to think that this is one of the easier decisions they have to make.

It becomes a reality of wartime existence. People die unceremoniously; they’re interrogated and tortured even as this onscreen brutality remains minimal. Still, each and every time we’re well aware of the aftermath and the ensuing consequences. It doesn’t make it any easier. The one lesson the experienced pass on to the naive is to always carry a cyanide capsule on your person.

Although the film is unsentimental, it’s not altogether unfeeling. Rather there is a maintained sense of wistfulness around the frames. Mainland Europe has been sent through the wringer, and it went on so long they almost came to accept the status quo. Even the German “Heil Hitlers” feel a bit bedraggled and half-hearted by now.

Army of Shadows is built on the foundation of a profound paradox. Because in reflecting its own subjects, it remains extraordinarily aloof while still managing to be deeply personal, even intimate.

They keep their humanity guarded. To show it would be a weakness to be exploited. But in this razor-thin web of moral ambiguity and dubious decisions, it’s the one element holding them together.

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It’s striking that while he walks down a dank corridor flanked by SS troopers to a foregone conclusion, scenes flash before Gerbier’s eyes. A pretty nurse in London. Walking in the forest with Mathilde (the inimitable Simone Signoret) amidst the calm of nature. They are glimmers of something else totally contrary to what he is experiencing at the moment. He clings to them fiercely because they offer some semblance of humanity.

The same might be said of Mathilde — an extraordinary woman of immense mettle with only one weak point — a family for whom she cares deeply about. Again, you cannot totally eradicate their hearts and souls.

This is not an action film; the events making up their days feel rudimentary and yet in each case, something might go horribly wrong. We live life right alongside them in this state of perpetual anxiety. Gerbier takes on an old acquaintance (Jean-Pierre Cassel) to run errands including transporting vital radio parts past the authorities.

They conduct a late-night rendezvous with a British submarine to evacuate P.O.W.s and some of their leaders back to the British Isles. In fact, these are some of the film’s most curious digressions.

A medal is bestowed for bravery. Gerbier and his companion Luc Jardie (Paul Meurisse ) view the raptures of Gone with the Wind in the cinema rather pensively. Even with the air raids, life is seemingly brighter in Britain, with bits of freedom still hidden away behind closed doors and in dance halls. We wonder where the film can go from here? Is it stalling? No, it’s giving us the respite we desperately need.

I deeply admire seemingly ordinary people who are unwavering in their resolve to walk into the lion’s den for the sake of liberty, knowing full-well what they are getting themselves into. I believe Willam Goldman called it “stupid courage.” There’s no more startling example than those who willfully returned to Nazi oppression.

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In this case, it’s an easy choice as Gerbier feels beholden to rescue his comrade Felix (Paul Crauchet ) who is currently being held at Gestapo headquarters, tortured to the point of exhaustion. It spells an end of the beginning because, in these dismal days of ’42 or ’43, things would only get worse before they got better.

Army of Shadows settles on a cruel conclusion indicative of the storyline thus far. In this way, the film maintains its narrative integrity. There’s no happy-go-lucky denouement slapped on. No such luck. They are faced with the impossible problems — the “Sophie’s  Choices,” if you will. I am reminded of Mathilde masquerading as a nurse, helpless to save a friend lest she betrays her cover. Or there’s Luc breaking with precedent by showing his face in public to pay his final respects to a friend.

In its day the film was a victim of poor timing, being released in the wake of ’68 with De Gaule, the former war hero, more despised than ever for his handling of the student protests.

Thus, the film became commercial and critical collateral damage, even failing to garner wider release in American until 2006! However, now it’s easy enough to look at it and one can hardly begrudge Melville his brand of patriotism since it strikes such a resonate chord with his own experience. As such, I’m led to deeply respect the film for its uncompromising perspective. It drains you of all veneration and hero-worship from the opening shot of German soldiers clomping through the Arc de Triomphe.

The true miracles are of an ordinary nature. Survival and yes, maintaining even a shred of decency in such a compassionless world. Sometimes the ultimate act of love is the most painful. The most devastating revelation the very fact that everything you might be clinging to could just as easily be a lie. What’s more, we might never know.

Forget villainy. Heroism is not a far cry from jaded, fatalistic acts of duty by insignificant little people sadly forgotten by time. I felt compelled to believe its depiction even as they unnerve me. It leaves no pretenses about war-torn France.

4.5/5 Stars

La Ronde (1950)

LarondeposterIf you know anything about director Max Ophuls you might realize his preoccupation with the cycling of time and storyline, even in visual terms. He initiates La Ronde with a lengthy opening shot that, of course, involves stairs (one of his trademarks), and the introduction of our narrative by a man who sees the world “in the round.” He brings our story to its proceedings, introducing us to the Vienna of 1900. It’s the age of the waltz and love is in the air — making its rounds. It’s meta in nature and a bit pretentious but do we mind this jaunt? Hardly.

It’s many vignettes of love and romance take us through drawing rooms and bedrooms, past bacchanalian gardens and statues involving a menagerie of figures from prostitutes and soldiers to poets and actresses. By the standards of the 1950s, it’s a highly overt and provocative film — even cheeky. And despite being set in Austria, it undoubtedly brings to mind the Rococo work of the likes of Fragonard or even Watteau’s “Embarkation for Cythera.”

Ophuls seems fascinated with the metaphor of carousels because, in a way, everything turns. Life is constantly of a cyclical nature just as film and the stories it tells always fluctuate from high to low and so on.

When I began my fledgling investigation of world cinema Simone Signoret and Simone Simon were two names that I egregiously intertwined. Now, forced to confront my confusion, I can say definitely that there is a clear distinction in my mind. They stand alone and really this is a film with some of France’s greatest female icons with Danielle Darreiux being another name of note.

However, this is hardly a story about a certain character, but more the themes running through the story and it gives Ophuls the means to exert his artistic mores. His shot lengths indicate just how assured he was in his work — commanding every detail.

When you think he’s going to fall back on a cut and move on, he finds yet another way to keep the shot going. It really is remarkable and it becomes noticeable just how continuous this film is at times. He’s also very much in his element with figures pirouetting on the dance floor. It’s only matched by the elegantly whimsical refrains of the score.

La Ronde actually brought to mind the biblical allusion from Ecclesiastes sung about so iconically by the Byrds. There is a season turn, turn, turn. Except in Ophuls’ case, he seems only interested in the idea of this carousel of romantic encounters. He never actually looks at the inverse of these fluffy tete-a-tetes — what happens when people are alone or their hearts are broken.

It’s very convenient actually, and it allows the film to maintain it’s light, airy quality. For instance, it never looks at the underlining issues that become apparent in a film like A Brief Encounter (1945). Still, I suppose its exquisite elegance and manners are meant to cover up the more base qualities of mankind. In the end, everything goes round and round. Whether or not there is a purpose to it all is for the viewer to decide.

4/5 Stars

Diabolique (1954)

3bb85-lesdiaboliquesposterThis French thriller begins at a small boarding school for boys. The principal is a difficult man who is married to a wealthy but frail teacher, and his mistress is another one of the teachers. Because he has been awful and abusive to both of the they befriend each other and devise a plan to kill him. They lure him away from school and eventually drown him in a bathtub. They go back to the school and dispose of the body in the murky pool. The deed is done and they are both apprehensive, especially the frail wife. When the pool is finally drained there is no body! This and other strange occurrences further frighten the wife and she becomes sickly. However, she could never expect what she saw one night that led her to die of fright. The twist at the end of the film is good. It is rumored that Hitchcock tried to get the rights to this story. He would just have to settle for making Psycho instead. What a shame.
 
4.5/5 Stars