Winnipeg Cinematheque is hosting a retrospective of the films of Jean-Pierre Melville in celebration of the director’s 100th birthday. Of the six Melville films being screened, 1969’s antifascist masterpiece Army of Shadows demands most urgently to be seen. Unreleased in North America until 2006 (and with its sole North American home video release long out of print), these screenings are a rare opportunity to see this film.
Set in Nazi-occupied France, the film follows a small collection of French Resistance fighters working to undermine Nazi rule. Based in part on Joseph Kessel’s semi-autobiographical novel, Melville also draws heavily on his own time in the French Resistance.
That lived experience is vividly felt in Army of Shadows. The film is an utterly unromantic look at the day-to-day reality of fighting Nazi occupation. It functions as a thriller, not because of any crowd-pleasing theatrics by Melville (if anything, his usual sleek style is dialled way down here), but because of how matter-of-factly he depicts the danger of this work. The constant threat of capture, interrogation, torture or death imbues the film with a tension that consistently builds and never releases.
That tension is made all the more palpable by the realism with which the conflict is depicted. Army of Shadows could make the battle between Nazis and Resistance its whole world. Instead, it’s an undercurrent thrumming beneath the banality of everyday life. Always in contrast to the struggle are the wheels of French society steadily turning, indifferent to who holds power, unconcerned with who the Gestapo is torturing behind closed doors.
That realism extends to the cast. With the possible exception of Jean-Pierre Cassel (father and more-or-less doppelganger of Vincent Cassel), no one on screen looks like a movie star. Melville’s camera constantly emphasizes the averageness of the people onscreen. Whether it’s the craggy faces and greying hair of middle-aged Resistance leaders, or the absurdly young visages of both Resistance foot soldiers and Nazi troopers, nobody looks like the popular idea of a screen hero.
Equally unromantic is the depiction of the work done by the Resistance itself. It’s a film concerned with the procedural aspects of espionage. These are often mundane and ugly. For example, a Resistance member has been caught feeding information to the Nazis. Suddenly, the characters have no choice but to kill this former friend. Army of Shadows is less concerned with the drama of the scenario than the logistical realities. Who has the stomach to do the killing? How will they do it without arousing the suspicion of the neighbours? How will they convey information to and from their imprisoned comrades?
The resulting film is confrontational, stoic and bleak. It explores the ugly side of fighting a righteous fight, skewers romantic myths about the realities of the Second World War and forces viewers to feel the unrelenting fear felt by soldiers in the army of shadows.
The film was poorly received upon its initial release in 1969 France. The film positively depicts French Resistance leader Charles de Gaulle, who by that time was president of France and unpopular among the French youth who led the country’s intelligentsia. Their miscalculation has made Army of Shadows difficult to see even 50 years later. Don’t miss what could be the last opportunity to see it in Winnipeg for a long time.