Melville's Army of Shadows
French noir rarely darkened, deepened, or explored more nuanced shades of gray and shadow than in the films of Jean-Pierre Melville. From his breakthrough gangster ode, Bob le Flambeur (1955), through 1962's underrated Le Doulos to the trio that put Alain Delon's icy beauty to proper use, Le Samouraï (1967), Le Cercle Rouge (1970), and Un Flic (1972), Melville infused the genre with a rigorous, formal power while simultaneously shooting quickly, stylishly, and on location. In the process he inspired new waverstocome with his resourceful quasi-vérité derring-do.
Yet not all of the director's films were caper exercises: Melville started his career with a 1950 collaboration with Jean Cocteau, Les Enfants Terribles World War II loomed large over the onetime Resistance fighter's imagination. Joseph Kessel's Army of Shadows was the book he waited to shoot for 25 years after discovering it in 1943, and in 1969 the filmmaker applied his eminently masculinized brand of hard-boiled cool as well as his compelling yet oppressive sense of landscape and character and their interplay to the text. The stunningly beautiful and shockingly poignant product finally saw its release in the States last year, and it says as much about Melville, his cold dreamscapes, and his idealistic though traumatized response to war (and resistance) as perhaps The Big Red One, Battle Royale, and even Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! might say about the works of kindred battle-scarred directors Sam Fuller, Kinji Fukasaku, and Russ Meyer, respectively. Here Melville, who later told an interviewer he never intended to make a film about the Resistance, and Kessel also the author of that psychosexual romp into the subconscious of an immaculate bourgeois, Belle du Jour use wartime experiences the director later described as "awful, horrible ... and marvelous" to illustrate a piercingly conflicted existential love letter to the past that fellow Resistant Albert Camus could have signed off on.
The past, as it turns out, was both enthralling and dreadful. Melville's camera almost vibrates with the morose shock value of Army of Shadows's opening long shot: German troops filing through or defiling the Champs-Élysées. From there Melville jumps to a van carrying a gendarme and a dark figure in spectacles, and the cop personably remarks on the convenience of their concentration camp destination and how it can now be used to house prisoners of France's Nazi occupiers until he spies the handcuffs on his traveling companion and catches himself. The viewer is pulled into the deceptively friendly scene, lulled by the bland banality of evil and French complicity while Melville continues swinging between points of view, from the soft gray matter of the forgetful cop to the blunt-object reverie of a French concentration camp commander dealing with the other man in the vehicle: Resistance leader and civil engineer Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura).
The director finally settles mainly in the mind of Gerbier, who, as played by onetime wrestler Ventura, can't shake an antihero veneer despite his upper-crusty suits. The watchful Gerbier bides his time in the camp, gauges the prisoner demographic makeup, and begins to hatch an escape plan with a young Communist, until he's suddenly summoned to the area's Nazi headquarters. His act of daring there based on a story told to Melville by a Gaullist deputy almost leaps off the screen. The director calibrates the tension, engineers its release, then does it once again in an exquisitely loaded scene between a Vichy barber and a customer, each playing at normalcy during insanity.
Army of Shadows reveals the rest of Gerbier's shadowy group with the offhand vibe of a chat with the local gendarme, and they're more a gang than an army, including the stalwart Felix (Paul Crauchet); former Legionnaire Le Bison (Christian Barbier); the quivering Le Masque (Claude Mann); the boldly heroic, Marianne-like Mathilde (Simone Signoret, portraying a loosely sketched Lucie Aubrac); playboy Jean François Jardie (Jean-Pierre Cassel); and network chief, Jardie's seemingly ivory-tower intellectual, deep-undercover brother, Luc (Paul Meurisse as a Jean Moulin figure). We find ourselves less in a traditional war film than embroiled in a tangle of arduous trips to England to visit a sequestered Charles de Gaulle, sudden arrests, subsequent betrayals, and then methodical hits, executed by the underground fighters, who operate under a code as rigid as any other gangster's in Melville's Guyville.
In an interview for the book Melville on Melville, the director bristled when he was reminded that some French critics equated the Resistants with thugs. Still, anyone familiar with Melville's films will recognize the fighters' toughened miens, accustomed to operating outside the law and the feeling of dread at having to strangle a onetime compatriot quietly with one's bare hands (when a previously arranged killing floor is now a few audible steps away from crying babes and frolicking schoolchildren). The dread here emerges from the fact that these ordinary citizens are compelled to commit both heroic and horrific acts: much like the jitterbuggers at the USO canteen that Gerbier crashes during a brief trip to England, these underground fighters otherwise known as "terrorists" to the Nazis are caught in an exhilarating and ultimately tragic tango with their occupiers.
Melville's underground fighters resemble thugs because they're operating in a similar mise-en-scène at the fringes of their occupied country's laws. "A lot of people would have to be dead before one could make a true film about the Resistance and about Jean Moulin," the director told writer Rui Nogueira. "Don't forget that there are more people who didn't work for the Resistance than people who did." Nonetheless, Melville never shies away from his truth, gazing at the foes and fighters with equanimity, as when Gerbier confesses that his only love is for the chief, is forced to run from a Nazi machine-gun firing squad, and orders the death of a deputy who succumbed to weakness.
Though Melville's cinematographer Pierre Lhomme, who supervised the 2004 digital restoration of the film, did a remarkable job recreating the film's steely blue, brown, and gray palette, it's the sound design that stands out today for example, the rush of the ocean as Gerbier and Felix march a traitor down a small seaside town's cobbled streets to his death. Wheels, motors, and heels clank like that dread old mechanism, the march toward denouement, a.k.a. death, found in any noirish plot. "You in a car of killers," Gerbier sighs, regarding his beloved boss at Army of Shadows's close, one that reduced Kessler to tears when he read the biting coda added by the filmmaker. "Is nothing sacred anymore?" Melville achieved a sense of closure in making Army, certainly and it rings true to his sense of manly fatalism like the clang of a cell door. (Kimberly Chun)
ARMY OF SHADOWS Thurs/11, 7:30 p.m., and Sat/13, 8:20 p.m. PFA, 2575 Bancroft, Berk. $4$8. (510) 642-5249, www.bampfa.berkeley.edu