BluRay/DVD Reviews

ARMY OF SHADOWS (L’ARMEE DES OMBRES)

By • May 15th, 2007 •

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Criterion Collection
1969 / 145 mins / Color
2-discs / Monaural / 1.85:1 AR / Subtitles
2004 Restoration supervised by Director of Photography Pierre Lhomme.

A number of critics called this 1969 film, in its long-belated release in the US, the best film of 2006. ’06 may or may not have been a great year for film, but it included the likes of THE DEPARTED, LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA, PAN’S LABYRINTH, BABEL, MISSION IMPOSSIBLE 3, LITTLE CHILDREN, THE ILLUSIONIST, INLAND EMPIRE, THE SCIENCE OF SLEEP and AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH.

I missed ARMY OF SHADOWS at the Film Forum in Manhattan, and so sat down to watch the DVD with mixed emotions. I am a Jean-Pierre Melville fan, and I expected no less than a very good experience. But I distrust the outre-critic hyperbole that, in praising a film, seeks to condemn American taste as slipshod for not having imported ‘world classics’ at the time of their release.

Well okay, this was certainly the equal of any film I had seen in 2006. Maybe it even was the best film of last year. I’m pretending to be grudgingly forthcoming here, but I’m really very impressed. I’ve witnessed Melville this controlled before, but never on such a grand scale. The restoration’s de-saturated color palate of blue-grays – which reinforce the formality of the camera set-ups, the deliberate editorial pacing, and the unity of subdued performances – is almost immediately compelling, and never lets go. The mood of the narrative – a story of obdurate rebellion by too few people to effect change – is one of bleak, gallant, and utter pessimism. My kind of movie.

Lino Ventura (1919-87 – ELEVATOR TO THE GALLOWS, TOUCHEZ PAS AU GRISBI, THE SICILIAN CLAN, HAPPY NEW YEAR, THE MEDUSA TOUCH, LES MISERABLES ’82) lends a unique physical quality to the role of a Resistance organizer. He could have been a businessman before the war, or an accountant, but forced into subversive action by the occupation, he finds his skills useful to the management of an underground network of warriors campaigning clandestinely for the freedom of their homeland. Jean-Pierre Cassel (1932-2007 – THE FIVE DAY LOVER, THE ELUVIVE CORPORAL, IS PARIS BURNING?, THE DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE, MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS) lends his devil-may-care charm to a portrait of a Resistance member who risks capture and death over and over until he is pushed towards an assignment that is beyond his willingness to accept. And Simone Signoret (1921-85 – LA RONDE, DIABOLIQUE, ROOM AT THE TOP [Best Actress Academy Award], SHIP OF FOOLS [Best Actress AA nomination], THE DEADLY AFFAIR [where’s the DVD?]), her face ravished (but not her legs, which look great) – by the aftereffects of her husband’s affair with Marilyn Monroe, we’re told in the commentary track – turns in a quiet, effective performance in the film’s second half.

These solid performers, and several others, populate Melville’s haunted frames as they try to adhere to the rigid principles of their tortured, Nazi-occupied lives. As often is the case, a great script is half narrative (there was a book), half memory. Melville was in the French Resistance during WWII. The film is filled with incidents he either witnessed or heard of at the time. In fact he assumed the name ‘Melville’ – after the American author – after joining the Resistance.

Of the many supplementals, one I was most struck by was French film historian Ginette Vincendeau’s superb commentary track. Despite English being her second language, she displays a phenomenal command of our vocabulary, revealing political, production, and critical details that constantly serve to increase our appreciation of the film. You can see her in a taped interview on Criterion’s LE SAMOURAI DVD.
Which is not to say that I agree with everything she says. I had problems with some of her observations and conclusions, and perhaps my biggest gripe was with her translation of the film’s title. Criterion, and the ads for its release here last year, call the film ARMY OF SHADOWS. She calls it ARMY IN THE SHADOWS. I speak French, and I disagree with her. Unless it’s a colloquial term with which I’m unfamiliar, I feel that Criterion’s translation is not only correct, but more elegiac, and more reverberatingly metaphoric.
She tells us that the critics bristled at what they perceived to be the film’s excessive praise of the Resistance in a barely post de Gaullist France. But the film is hardly heaping praise. The Resistance never seems to achieve anything of importance except to get their members in and out of trouble. The war rolls on unaffected by them. Hardly a glowing endorsement.

She also points out Cahier du Cinema’s silly, pretentious, left wing rejection of both the film and of Melville’s work after the uprising of 1968, which condemnation went on until ’96 when they belatedly re-embraced him. Andrew Sarris similarly, in the reckless auteur spirit, rejected some great cinematic talents for decades, only to re-acknowledge their importance, often within my earshot if not in print.

I object to Ms. Vincendeau’s justification of a few scenes which just don’t work logically. In one of them, near the end of the first act, an escaping Lino Ventura enters a barbershop not far from the German headquarters he’s just broken out of, and gets a shave. It’s a good scene, but it twists our willing suspension of disbelief entirely out of shape. Ms. Vincendeau accepts the scene as valid because it’s taken from Joseph Kessel’s 1943 source book, therefore, for her, it really happened. For me, if Melville doesn’t make it work, then it doesn’t work, regardless of whether it happened or not. There are other moments or scenes like this one, which she finds a way to wholeheartedly embrace, but I can’t quite. But that doesn’t damage this marvelous commentary, which not only bolsters the film’s feeling of greatness, but lends it an air of importance as well.

Also of special note is the 44-page pamphlet enclosed within the two-disc case. It contains an appreciation by the omnipresent Amy Taubin (whose ‘Women in Film’ class follows my ‘International Cinema’ class Monday mornings at The School of Visual Arts), as well as excerpts from ‘Melville on Melville’. Amy’s prose is the clearest I’ve read of hers, and she writes beautifully in defense of the film.

On the second disc are B& W TV talk show interviews and a latter-day color documentary that give us rare access to Melville himself, as well as to Cassel, Signoret, and others involved in the production both in front of, and behind, the camera. Many of them – particularly cinematographer Lhomme (who starts a story in one interview and finishes it in another) and editor Francoise Bonnot – have wonderfully enlightening things to say. It comes across in no uncertain terms that while Melville was, as a filmmaker, France’s (if not Europe’s) equivalent of Charles Chaplin – an intimidating independent who ended up with his own studio and never went any way but his own – he was also a purposely difficult man who made enemies among his peers almost by design.


Supplementals:
Audio Commentary by film historian Ginette Vincendeau.
New Interviews with DP Lhomme and editor Francoise 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’armee Des Ombres”’ (2005) – a short program on the director and his film. ‘Le Journal de la Resistance (1944) – a short documentary shot on the front lines of the final days of German-occupied France. And a 44-page booklet containing essays about the film, as well as an interview with Melville.

Crew:
Director – Jean-Pierre Melville.
Producer – Jacques Dorfmann.
Screenplay adaptation – Melville.
Based on the Novel by Joseph Kessel.
Director of Photography – Pierre Lhomme.
Art director – Theobald Meurisse.
Sound Design – Jacques Carrere, Alex Pront, Jean Neni.
Editor – Francoise Bonnot.
Music – Eric Demarsan.

Cast:
Lino Ventura, Paul Meurisse, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Simone Signoret, Claude Mann, Paul Crauchet, Christian Barbier.

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