JEAN-PIERRE MELVILLE?S MASTERPIECE ABOUT THE FRENCH RESISTANCE WENT UNRELEASED IN THE UNITED STATES FOR THIRTY-SEVEN YEARS, BEFORE ITS TRIUMPHANT THEATRICAL DEBUT IN 2006. ATMOSPHERIC AND GRIPPING, ARMY OF SHADOWS IS MELVI... more »LLE?S MOST PERSONAL FILM, FEATURING LINO VENTURA, PAUL MEURISSE, JEAN-PIERRE CASSEL, AND THE INCOMPARABLE SIMONE SIGNORET AS INTREPID UNDERGROUND FIGHTERS WHO MUST GRAPPLE WITH THEIR OWN BRAND OF HONOR IN THEIR FIGHT AGAINST EVIL.« less
"Many thanks to Criterion for bringing yet another forgotten foreign classic to a U.S. audience on DVD. "Army of Shadows" is one of the most underrated and magnificently shot films ever made about the French experience in World War II, and was a marked departure for director Jean Pierre Melville, who built his reputation on crime-themed noirs such as "Le Samourai," "Un Flic," and "Le Doulos." For my money, this was his best film, and also his most personal statement: He was involved in the French Resistance himself, and he knew that most of war is not about the pageantry, gallantry, and heroism depicted in so many flagwaving epics. Instead, Melville attempts a more honest portrayal of people who were afraid, on the run, unable to trust anyone, physically and emotionally exhausted, and all too familiar with the painful task of killing their own as well as the enemy. The result is a film in which the filmmaker's feelings are as evident and moving as his cinematic technique is impressive. A must-own. Now that it's finally possible to own it!"
Doug Anderson | Miami Beach, Florida United States | 05/19/2007
(5 out of 5 stars)
"To view a Jean-Pierre Melville film is to step into a universe where real communication between men (and the occasional woman), if it exists at all, has been reduced to a few spare facial expressions. Melville's characters are deeply skeptical of social codes (which simply provide rationalizations/justifications for countless injustices), of human nature (which is mutable and unreliable), and of themselves. And since his characters are deeply skeptical of the things that usually bind people together Melville's social/human outcasts maintain some sense of self only by setting their own course according to a supra-human standard. It is human nature to seek friendship and brotherhood but in the human world no bond is ever sacred and the only inevitable thing about bonds is that they eventually break. Melville's universe is thus a fatalistic universe populated by gamblers, thieves, assassins, and resistance fighters who each recognize that the odds are against them and unbeatable. But Melville's quiet anti-heroes fascinate us because even though they do not believe that anything like victory is ever achievable in human affairs they remain curious about themselves and how they will act in different circumstances and so they persist if only to test themselves and re-affirm (perhaps only to themselves) that they are made of harder stuff than the rest of fickle humanity.
There have been relatively few insightful French films about WWII. A few that come to mind are: Clouzot's Le Corbeau (1943), Resnais' Night and Fog (1955), and Chabrol's Eye of Vichy (1993). Clouzot's film is especially interesting since it was made during the occupation and when Criterion released Le Corbeau they included a documentary about the French film industry during the war (and many French film makers that went on working during the occupation, Clouzot among them, were stigmatized as collaborators). During WWII Melville was not a film maker, rather he was a member of the resistance. And this credential really singles him out from the crowd especially when one considers Melville's claim that the French resistance numbered only 600. Army of Shadows is a film that makes the French uncomfortable because any film that deals with this period of French history stirs up new accusations about French complicity with the Nazi regime. In 1969 France was experiencing a whole new kind of social upheaval and in that decade that valorized the radical will and politics of film makers like Godard, Melville, and the history that Melville represented, was not particularly welcome.
Ironically, Godard's late-60's radical style (what we might call his postmodern experiments in irreverence) has since been absorbed, assimilated, and adopted by the culture that it was originally attempting to overthrow; while Melville's detached realism retains its gritty contestatory spirit. Army of Shadows is a film about WWII but its not only about that. Its also about human beings confronting their own weaknesses and taking a measure of what human life really consists of. Perhaps the most fascinating equation Melville makes in the film is the equation between the philosopher king/artist and the resistance fighter; each fights a losing battle to save/protect humanity from its own self-serving impulses (what the Greeks called the fates). Melville's universe is cold and it offers no consolation save the consolation that one was one of an army of shadows that resisted the fates or fought them off in a few places for a few moments and won some small measure of transient grace from oblivion."
Trevor Willsmer | London, England | 03/02/2007
(5 out of 5 stars)
"L'Armée des Ombres is not nearly as well-known as it deserves to be. For a long time incredibly difficult to track down unless you speak French and overshadowed by the reputations of Le Samourai, Le Cercle Rouge and Bob le Flambeur, it's by far Jean-Pierre Melville's most heartfelt and powerful film. The resistance is as much a part of Melville as cinema - Melville was one of the false names he used during the war - and this is a film that feels as if it has been lived by the people making it: it's not so much a tribute as a confession of guilt. Although the gangster parallels are there, it's not an affectation: after the war, many resistance figures famously put their newly learned talents to use by either going into crime or politics. Melville went into movies.
His protagonists aren't action heroes. They don't blow up trains or bridges. They deliver radios and spend more time killing each other than killing Germans. Indeed, the film's four month timespan from October 1942 to February 1943 covers a moral journey that sees them go from killing traitors to killing friends. Many of their plans fail, their gestures often futile as it becomes clear that these people will never live to see the liberation - something brought tragically to light in the film's final moments that carry a real emotional punch absent in Melville's other work. The final image of the Arc de Triomphe glimpsed furtively through the windscreen of a car hurrying away from the murder of a friend is a solemn and bitter one: this is the human cost of victory. (The sequence originally ended with a shot of German troops parading down the Champs Elysee, emphasizing that nothing has changed, but the shot was moved to the opening of the film, acting both as historical scene-setter and leitmotif bookend.)
These people are afraid and ashamed, but that's what makes them so truly heroic and their inevitable fate so truly tragic. They don't need speeches or backstory - they are ennobled by their actions, futile or not.
Irony abounds. In the opening scenes, Lino Ventura's civil engineer and suspected resistance fighter is sent to a barely finished P.O.W. camp built by the French for German prisoners they never got the chance to capture and is now the exclusive domain of patriots, communists and fools waiting `to be broken.' Jean-Pierre Cassel, having eluded Nazi search parties, is stopped by gendarmes on the lookout for black market goods who ignore the radio transmitters he openly and casually shows them before waving him on his way. Even capture is as likely to come from a random identity check at a restaurant serving black market beef as it is from an informer.
It's the kind of film that gives low-key moviemaking a good name. As the film's composer Eric Demarsan noted, "I was struck by the strength of the silences, the looks, the waiting moments." Along with a great use of locations that are deliberately empty to emphasise the loneliness of the life they find themselves in, there's a wonderful use of sound and stillness: a daring attempt to rescue one of their number from an SS prison is played mostly in silence interrupted only by the constant clicking and unclicking of automated locks. When one character is seized, it is so quick and so silent that it is over almost before we know it, with only his signature hat left in the street to show he was ever there. The only `big' moment in the score is the use of Morton Gould's Re-Spirituals in the build-up to the chicken-run scene, underscoring Gerbier's desperate mental efforts to avoid death by an act of will. It sounds melodramatic, but it works, not least because of the sudden violence of the silence that ends it, heralding the end of hope.
Nothing feels sensationalized. Even murder is treated in a coldly matter of fact manner as a practical problem as much as a moral one. You have to kill a man, but you can't use a gun because the walls are paper-thin and it will alert the neighbors. What do you do? How do you rationalize killing a friend? And at what cost? All become more disturbing because they feel all-too real.
Some of the special effects are primitive even for their day, but it doesn't matter: you forgive them because you buy into the characters and the reality of their situation absolutely. And although the London sequences have problems, not least the embarrassingly Christ-like approach to filming De Gaulle, they are an interesting inversion of the French scenes. Here the war is fought noisily and openly with air raids and burning buildings, yet the traditionally repressed British still let their hair down - something Gerbier (Lino Ventura), having lived in secret for so long, cannot. He is left alone at the door to a pub, unable to join in, quietly leaving before anyone even notices him. In France, the war is fought in silence and in shadows, and it is the French who repress their every emotion. One character is even unable to confide in his own brother, completely unaware that his sibling is actually the head of his resistance group.
Even the smallest characters are splendidly drawn, from the gendarme accompanying Gerbier to the prison camp to Serge Reggiani's great matter-of-fact cameo as a barber who displays Vichy posters but holds De Gaullist sympathies. The film is so well cast that you believe in these people on sight. But quietly towering over them all is Ventura in his best performance, with a warmth that is not overt but still there, as well as a weakness - his shame at running at the behest of a sadistic German officer is all too convincing. Indeed, for all the undoubted right of their cause, the unifying feature of the main characters is their growing sense of shame.
Sobering, powerful and very moving - with the only one of Melville's pre-destined endings that is, offering no resolution, only damnation and the promise of death - L'Armee des Ombres is a genuine tragedy.
The extras on Criterion's 2-disc set are both plentiful and superb, covering both the film and the real resistance and include everything found on the French disc (30-minute documentary, the original French trailer) and the UK disc (audio commentary by Ginette Vincendeau, WW2 documentary on the resistance, TV excerpt of Melville directing the opening sequence, a booklet reprinting a lengthy part of the long out-of-print Melville on Melville on the film), as well as many more unique to the set, from interviews with the cinematographer and editor, a French documentary interviewing real members of the resistance and a TV interview with Simone Signoret and Lucie Aubrac, one of the inspirations for her character. A superb disc of a film that's finally gaining the recognition it always deserved. "
Nerves of Steel
Rocky Raccoon | Boise, ID | 05/17/2007
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Director Jean-Pierre Melville drew from his own experiences of The French Resistance during World War II to make the same-titled novel into an inspired movie. Capturing the gamut of participants and demonstrating that not all of the French were on board, 'Army of Shadows' zeroes in on some of the more effective players who must operate with nerves of steel to sneak around, outfox, and escape from their German occupiers and undermine their influence.
Protagonist Phillippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura), a civil engineer, is the focal point. At the beginning he is sent to a prison the French originally meant for the Germans. After a skillful escape, he must continue the mission and dote over any fellow member who may be subsequently captured and tortured, so that the operation won't be revealed to the Nazis. One focal point of tension is when fellow member Felix (Paul Crauchet) is captured, and Phillipe laments he has no cyanide capsules to take his own life if the pressure is too much for him. Having connections for communication and arms from London and a spy network that matters make their operation essential are amongst many of the tactics in their arsenal. (Some of the London scenes are quite interesting. Phillipe's British laison doesn't trust the bumbling French and is stingy with arms. Visiting a jazz discoteque in London, the dancers don't even flinch at the sounds and shaking of bombs.) Resourceful in their repertoire is shop owner Matilde (Simone Signoret) whose own family doesn't even suspect her involvement. Her clever insights make her a key player in their operation.
'Army of Shadows' is methodical, sometimes requiring the patience requisite of the resistance. The timing merely gives the audience an unnerving sense of the imminent dangers lurking amongst them. Resourceful and keenly observant, the movie transports us into the vigilant world of their underground. The performances demonstrate steely coolness that is never overdone. Neither the dialogue nor the action is ever wasted. I was truly fascinated about a matter I'd always wondered about: Whatever happened in France during the German occupation? Now I feel like I know through a perceptive and honest cinematic account."
Melville's best film.
G. Merritt | Boulder, CO | 10/18/2007
(5 out of 5 stars)
"At the risk of sparking a debate with the many fans of Le Samourai, Army of Shadows (L'Armée des ombres) is arguably Jean-Pierre Melville's best film. Based on Belle De Jour author Joseph Kessel's 1943 book L'armée des ombres, Melville's superb film chronicles his own experiences as a member of the French Resistance, together with fictionalized accounts of the Resistance against the Nazi occupation of France during World War II. The film is set in the winter months of 1942 and 1943. The opening shot of a German military procession on the Champs D'Elysees in front of the Arc de Triomphe, followed by Resistance fighter Philippe Gerbier's (Lino Ventura) solemn description of a German internment camp, establishes a quality of realism and authenticity that permeates the entire film. Much like Jef (the central character of Le Samourai), Melville's resistance fighters act with a ritualistic, warrior's code of conduct in a cold and politically hostile environment. In one of many memorable scenes, without emotion, Gerbier and his fellow fighters silently strangle a frightened young man for betraying them, using only a bath towel. In another equally compelling scene, they plot to kill one of their own, Mathilde (Simone Signoret), before she is interrogated by the Gestapo. Lino Ventura (who resembles Robert Deniro) brings an extraordinary performance to Melville's film. Unreleased in the United States for thirty-seven years, Army of Shadows is French cinema at its finest. It sets the standard for the French Resistance film genre (which also includes another French favorite, Lucie Aubrac).
This must-have two-disc Criterion set includes a new digital transfer of the 2004 restoration, an optional Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 soundtrack, audio commentary by film historian Ginette Vincendeau, new interviews with Lhomme and editor Françoise Bonnot, archival video excerpts, including on-set footage and interviews with Melville, cast members, writer Joseph Kessel, and real-life Resistance fighters, Jean-Pierre Melville et "L'Armée des ombres" (2006), a short program on the director and his film, Le journal de la Résistance (1944), a rare short documentary shot on the front lines of the final days of German-occupied France, improved subtitles, and a A booklet featuring critic Amy Taubin, historian Robert Paxton, and excerpts from Rui Nogueira's Melville on Melville.