Today: February 25, 2024

Army of Shadows

Having been critically panned on release in France in 1969 and subsequently denied a theatrical run in the US, after a thorough restoration over thirty-five years later, Army of Shadows has finally found recognition.

Having been critically panned on release in
France in 1969 and subsequently denied a theatrical run in the US, after a
thorough restoration over thirty-five years later, Army of Shadows has finally
found recognition.
It is director Jean-Pierre Melville’s final word on the French resistance in
wartime France, of which he himself was a member.

Lino Ventura plays Philippe Gerbier, a chief in the French resistance in German
occupied France, 1942. We first
meet Gerbier on his way to a prison camp, having been betrayed by one of his subordinates. From here Melville unravels a harrowing
tale of ethical dilemmas, split loyalties and courage of a type that only those
who lived through such times can fully comprehend.

A bleak portrait is
painted of life for the resistance members, one of near futility as their
efforts seem to consist almost solely of evading capture and risking their
lives with no reliable way of knowing who to trust, only to be told that the
powers that be consider them of little use against the German war machine. Melville poses questions such as
whether ones own life has any value in the grand scheme of things, particularly
if one feels of little use to anyone alive. The tension between personal friendships and loyalty to a
cause is also explored, leaving you with unsettlingly ambiguous thoughts that
hint at the kinds of things that kept the resistance members awake at night.

Melville’s typically
sparse and minimalist mise-en-scène reinforces the chillingly matter of fact
atmosphere. Characters pace
through scenes, their footsteps echoing as the camera lingers in a way that
leaves the audience room for a quiet sobriety of thought, of a kind that the
fast cutting and handheld camerawork of more recent war films can only dream.

Éric Demarsan’s haunting score is evocative of Cold War-esque
melancholy secrecy. The icy
strings and poignant piano melody weave a non-specific yet memorable soundscape
to reflect the troubled and cagey characters. The performances throughout are superbly restrained and
affecting, particularly those of Ventura in the lead and Simone Signoret as resistance member Mathilde, a character whose
personal ethical hell is perhaps the most sympathetic.

While slow and
intellectually demanding, like a ponderous game of chess, Army of Shadows
remains a treasure trove for anyone looking for a vivid and challenging insight
into the experiences of the French resistance, told in a beautiful cinematic
style which is now sadly all but forgotten.

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