Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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MELVILLE 100 @ PFA BERKELEY
1969 The Army of Shadows


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LINO VENTURA IN THE ARMY OF SHADOWS

Melville's dry instruction kit on resistance fighting

(Originally published for ​US revival 26 August-1 September 2015 at Film Forum, New York)

Clearly one of the greatest French movie directors of the post-War period, Jean-Pierre Melville produced a body of work that's unified in its grim, austere beauty, its focus on loneliness and loss. But it's also more varied than might appear. Though he may be most famous for his ironic, stylish films noirs, Melville, an Alsatian Jew by birth who was ​himself ​with France Libre in London in the War, made three remarkable films about the Occupation and the French resistance. His debut adapted Vercors' story of private and personal French resistance, Le Silence de la mer, about two French family members who refuse to address a word to the German officer billeted in their house. Léon Morin, Priest is about Jews and atheists and occupation. ​ One of Melville's last three films and in a mature style, ​L'Armée des ombres is more a sprawling and full-on story of resistance, adapted and pared down from Joseph Kessel's eponymous novel packed with resistance stories​, adding some of his own experience​.

It seems like Army will be a conventional movie about wartime courage, except that it's not, because it stubbornly refuses to satisfy any conventional expectations by forming itself together into a coherent, forward-driving plot-line. Nothing ever really goes right, or, when it goes right, does so only momentarily. ​B​ut still, it's powerful, unique stuff​, pessimistic in tone and austere in style.​ On this film's revival in France earlier this year the critic for Les Inrockuptibles sums this film up succinctly and perfectly: "The resistance in its most horrifying banality. Melville at his greatest."

L'Armée des ombres has, in action movie terms, a meandering, unsatisfying quality. And it has a correspondingly banal hero in the expressionless, buttoned-down Lino Ventura, who, far from seeming dashing and heroic like Delon or Belmondo, makes just as good a gangster or cop, hero or villain, convincing and solid every time, but never quite satisfying or dashing. You're heard of the banality of evil; well, here is the banality of good, because most of resistance fighting is dull and frustrating, and Lino Ventura is its embodiment.

Army of Shadows is about a series of failures and desperate measures, all of which the necessity of events requires. At the outset Gerbier (Ventura) has been betrayed by a traitor, has been captured, and is being accompanied to an internment camp in a paddy wagon by a standard-issue (and pro-Occupation) French cop, with a detour to collect some black market farm produce: it's a bald and bold display of French police (and civilian) complicity in the occupation and with the extermination of any enemies of the Nazis, not a phenomenon the French were willing to talk about in the post-War years. The truth of Vichy collaborations was only now in 1969 about to be openly discussed on film in Max Orphuls' epic four-hour-plus documentary The Sorrow and the Pity.​ Sadly, its timing led Melville's last war film to be seen as retro by many French when it came out, but it's understood on both sides of the Atlantic as classic now. ​

After settling in and finding one ally, with whom he agrees to plan an escape, Gerbier is suddenly removed from the camp, thus ending his escape plan with the young communist, Legrain (Alain Dekok). What will happen to Legrain? We'll never know. The grim darkness of the internment camp, shot at an actual camp from which Jews and others were sent to be exterminated, is no more unpleasant than what follows.

And each time the resistance fighters are on unfamiliar ground. Thus when they track down and set out to kill the man (played by Alain Liboult)​ who betrayed Gerbier​, they arrive at the empty house they've set up only to find the ​one next door is now busy with new occupants ​ so now​ shooting the man is out of the question. But even Le Bison (Christian Barbier), the team's official killer, balks at using a knife, the silent method. They wind up gagging the man and choking him with a cloth: it's muted, quiet, but ugly. Maybe the neighbors can't hear the man's pitiful cries, but they (and we) can. Moreover they are killing a nice, innocent-looking young man who was formerly their ally. ​This quietly grim set piece is one of the film's most unforgettable.​

At some point another key character who becomes part of the resistance group turns up in a bar -- Jean-François, played by Jean-Pierre Cassel in a leather jacket, the most dashing and handsome of the men, and one of the most mysteriously brave later on.

The action continues to ​wander​​, but it's clear that Gerbier is important after he's sent to the Free France headquarters in London. And we see how hard his job routinely is when he's sent back to France in a hurry and must parachute-​jump​ secretly back, near a village, with no prior experience of how to do this. ​ Gerbier's wait -- typically, alone -- inside the empty plane is agonizing. Melville clearly wants to give us a good strong taste of​ the multiple ordeals Gerbier must go​ through​;​ ​t​his explains the film's over-two-hour length. ​Still n​othing seems to have ​much direction in action film terms, till the necessity of freeing the​ir​ comrade ​Félix (Paul Crauchet) ​from the Gestapo arises, with "Madame Mathilde" (Simone Signoret​, who comes into play only half way through the film​) doing extensive research in what method to use.

But even this project, which is so well planned and bravely executed and suspenseful to watch and might have been a brilliant success, ends flatly and sadly, when it turns out​ that​ Félix, the subject of the rescue mission​,​ ​is now ​too ​near death from torture​ to transport anywhere.

The story would not be complete without a trip before a firing squad, where Gerbier is toyed with cruelly, and effects a miraculous escape​ (as he did from the Gestapo at the Hotel Majestic earlier)​, again largely thanks to the exemplary Madame Mathilde. And then, another staple of the secret world: a lengthy period for Gerbier hiding in a remote, lonely location with not​h​ing to read but obscure mathematical texts by their "Chief" Luc Jardie (the soulful Paul Meurisse), and his glasses lost anyway​; a​nd with nothing to eat but canned food. That most essential and most painful feature of the resistance, ​the ​need under extreme conditions​ ​to kill ​their​ own comrades, returns on steroids when, after much has happened, Gerbier, Le Bison and Le Masque (Claude Mann) must debate over whether, and if so how, to kill Madame Mathilde. ​N​ow that she has been found out and held and her daughter identified, ​she who has been​ so​ formidable, impressive, resourceful​, ​still​ must go because she knows everybody's name. And while the others have cyanide capsules to commit suicide if necessary she is too devout a Catholic to do that.

What was the value of Gerbier's own survival to another day? Another firing squad is coming, "and this time he refused to run." ​ In Melville's minimal and pessimistic version, f​ighting in the Free French seems an unrewarding occupation. But consider the alternative. Note how the film begins, with German soldiers parading in front of the Arc de Triomphe.

This ​dark, ​in some ways ​rather ​numbing ​but clearly immensely serious, personal, and accomplished ​classic​, which obviously didn't show American commercial potential when it first came out,​ finally got a US theatrical release a few years ago and ​received, with historical perspective,​​​​​ predictable​ raves. Now​ that ​ it has been restored​ ​the cleaner images enhance the bluish twilight exteriors​ and interiors of Meville's "black and white films in color"​ ​and give them a fresher, more poetic edge.​ They are enhanced by the deliberately restrained and "cold" use of music composed by Éric Demarsan​.

Jean-Pierre Melville was a complex personality, tyrannical and charming, loved and sometimes hated; famously, because of a trick he played on Ventura involving a speeding train, Ventura became so angry with him they did not speak to each other throughout the shoot. ​​​ This didn't keep both from doing fine work. ​

The Army of Shadows/L'Armée des ombres, 145 mins., debuted in France 2 September 1969. Not released in the US till 28 April 2006​, winning a number of US critics awards that year.​ ​It is available for US audiences with a bonus disk in the Criterion Collection. A ​French re-release ​came ​6 May 2015​.​ A ​corresponding ​US revival is scheduled to begin 26 August-1 September 2015 at Film Forum, New York. Now part of the Melville 100 retrospective, April-June Film Forum, June-August Pacific Film Archive.

Melville100 Berkeley
Saturday, June 10 6 PM (145 mins) BAM/PFA
Sunday, June 25 7 PM (145 mins) BAM/PFA


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INTERNMENT CAMP SCENE IN RESTORATION

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FRENCH BLU-RAY OF RESTORED VERSION, MAY 2015

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©Chris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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