4 out of 5 stars

The French Resistance fighters in Jean-Pierre Melville’s Army of Shadows / L’Armée des Ombres undoubtedly perform heroic deeds. Yet, with only one notable exception (the character played by Jean-Pierre Cassel), they are about as far removed from conventional cinematic heroes and heroines as one can get. They tend to be bland, middle-aged, and portly. They don’t win the war either; indeed, much of their resistance to the Nazis proves futile. The film even allows a few moments for an officer of the Free French movement in London (André Dewavrin, playing himself) to express doubts about whether the Resistance was truly valuable to the war effort.

In light of this, it’s remarkable that Melville’s film was so vehemently rejected in France upon its initial release. This was partly due to its perception as being overly celebratory of the Resistance and Charles de Gaulle (who only makes a fleeting appearance in the film, played by Adrien Cayla-Legrand). Nevertheless, it was swiftly recognised as a masterpiece in Britain—and, much later, in the US when it was finally released there. Now, the film has even been rehabilitated in its home country, featuring among the classics at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.

The film’s opening scene is one of its triumphs and must have been uncomfortable for French audiences in 1969. The war was only a quarter-century past then (hardly further away than 9/11 is for us now). Melville shows us a still, silent scene of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Distant soldiers then march into view from the left of the frame, accompanied by martial music. The column now swings around to march towards the viewer, perfectly positioned within the curve of the arch itself—only as they get closer do we see that they are Germans.

This dissonance—Nazi soldiers in the most iconically French of settings—is echoed later in the film in a different way when we see civilian buildings repurposed for military use. New defensive structures are crudely added onto sedate architecture. The effect of that first scene, still shocking, is underlined further by the film’s downbeat ending when the monument comes briefly into view again. There are no marching soldiers this time, but we (and the film’s Resistance characters) don’t need reminding that they’re still there.

In this opening scene too, Army of Shadows makes a striking shift from black and white to colour. However, the colour is anything but joyful or exuberant. Throughout the film, the dominant palette is a grey-blue, not far removed from the hue of Nazi uniforms. Even scenes by the Mediterranean in Marseilles, which many filmmakers would bathe in bright sunlight, are imbued with this same gloomy aura. Only during a section in London does the visual tone lighten a little.

From the Arc de Triomphe, Melville cuts to a shot of a depressing, rain-swept countryside. The main story then begins in October 1942 and spans roughly four months. It’s partly based on the experiences of real Resistance members.

Gerbier (Lino Ventura) is being transported by French police to a camp. It’s a facility for internment, rather than the sort of concentration camp forever associated with the Nazi regime. But the mere association is unsettling enough for viewers in 2024 and, of course, internment camps themselves weren’t that distant a memory in 1969.

These police belong to the Vichy government, which nominally continued to rule part of France while the Germans occupied the remainder. However, they collaborated closely with the Nazis. The distinction between Vichy and occupied France might not always be immediately clear to viewers in 2024, but it certainly would have been in 1969. In any case, it’s not hugely significant to the storyline. The Nazis remain the protagonists’ primary enemies in both parts of the country.

Gerbier, it emerges, hasn’t exactly been convicted of anything but is still suspected of anti-Nazi activity. At the camp, he strikes up a friendship with a young electrician (Alain Dekok) and they plot to escape together, but before long another opportunity arises and—in one of the film’s few outbursts of violence and action—Gerbier flees from the Germans on his own, soon reconnecting with his companions in the Resistance. He also recruits a friend, Jardie (Cassel), to the movement, and among the other characters we meet are Jardie’s brother Luc (Paul Meurisse), the subject of the film’s biggest surprise. Mathilde (Simone Signoret) is the only woman of importance to the plot; she and a fellow Resistance member, Félix (Paul Crauchet), become increasingly important as the movie progresses, while a couple of other chaps (Claude Mann and Christian Barbier) also have substantial supporting roles

In the course of the film, which flits between Lyon, Marseilles, Paris, the French countryside and London, the Resistance team is involved in several daring episodes—a nighttime liaison with a British submarine, a parachute jump, attempted rescues of prisoners from the Germans, and a daylight assassination on the street. However, it’s worth noting that we never see them strike a significant blow against the occupation. Once again, while Melville’s film certainly portrays them as brave and committed, it’s far from suggesting they were a decisive force. And despite all these story elements that might, on paper, look like they come from an action thriller, Army of Shadows is about as un-thriller-like as it could be. Long takes, long silences, stillness and greyness pervade the film, and these sequences are no exception.

The parachute jump, for example, is preceded by a lengthy lead-up in which Gerbier naps and eats a sandwich, interspersed with exterior shots of the plane carrying him; the jump itself is almost an afterthought. Similarly, a scene in the London Blitz is entirely, and surely deliberately, lacking in tension; Gerbier seems to regard the bombing with detached bemusement. The murder of a German guard is dealt with in an almost offhand manner compared with the walk down the street and visit to a barber’s shop that follows. Only one sequence toward the end, where a Resistance group poses as an ambulance team in an attempt to penetrate a German prison, comes close to being nerve-wracking.

Melville seems much more interested in conveying the texture of his character’s lives, rather than specific highlights—for example, when he shows an Allied aeroplane secretly using the grounds of a French château as a makeshift landing strip, it isn’t to illustrate any particular mission but to show how things were in a certain place and a certain time. And it may well be true that a degree of ennui mixed with constant uncertainty and low-level nervousness was an inevitable part of spending so many years living double lives.

He also seems more interested in them as representatives of the Resistance than as fully-rounded human beings; we learn very little of their lives before the war or outside the Resistance, and voiceovers from multiple different characters help to discourage identification with any individual. Physical movements and gestures are controlled, and reticent. The London section may be comparatively exuberant, with brighter colours, a screening of Gone With the Wind (1939) and a visit to a dance hall, but the French characters remain somewhat unengaged. Calm cinematography by Pierre Lhomme and Walter Wottitz also adds to the feeling of detachment, even unreality; a close-up on a young man, gagged and terrified, about to be executed, is a very rare moment where Army of Shadows brings us directly into contact with human experience.

In all this, the performances manage to be surprisingly charismatic. Ventura does a great deal to make Gerbier believable and appealing, despite the limited opportunities to develop the character. His resemblance to Peter Sellers’s Inspector Clouseau is a touch unfortunate, but, of course, Clouseau was a parody of a Frenchman, and Ventura (Italian by birth) can hardly be blamed for looking like an actual Frenchman in a film where he plays one. Meurisse, as Luc—seemingly an otherworldly intellectual at first, until we discover more about him—is also memorable, as are Signoret and Dekok. All the Germans are cold, distant, and unknowable (even more so than the French characters).

Army of Shadows was one of Melville’s last films, released only a few years before he died in 1973. It was his third to deal directly with the subject of the Nazi occupation of France, following on from The Silence of the Sea / Le Silence de la Mer (1949) and Léon Morin, Priest / Léon Morin, Prêtre (1961). He had himself been a member of the Resistance. But with its focus on a gang (mostly of men), its conspiracies and deceptions, its noirish fatalism, and its shadowy visual mood, it has just as much in common with the gangster films for which he is most celebrated. (Fitting, then, that he also appeared in a small role, as Parvulesco, in one of the best-known French crime films—Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless / À Bout de Souffle (1960).)

Like many others, it has rightly entered the pantheon of films dealing with the German occupation of France. Its position is all the more noteworthy because, with the exceptions of Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped / Un Condamné à Mort s’est Échappé (1956) and Marcel Ophüls’ The Sorrow and the Pity / Le Chagrin et la Pitié (1969), such films were still uncommon and unpopular when this one was made. Some French audiences preferred their cinema visits not to confront the issues raised by the occupation at all, while others dismissed anything that seemed to endorse the idea of a heroic Resistance and a French citizenry uniformly opposing the Nazis.

Melville’s film would please neither group, though in reality, it doesn’t strongly endorse any particular view of the Resistance as a whole. But it’s precisely his refusal to allow much overt emotion into the movie, and his tight focus on the efforts of a few people over a few months rather than dealing with the bigger picture, that make Army of Shadows such a strangely powerful film.

FRANCE • ITALY | 1969 | 145 MINUTES | 1.85:1 | COLOUR | FRENCH

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Blu-ray Special Features:

  • New 4K restoration of the film. The digitally cleaned print is free from any obvious flaws, with rich, deep colours doing full justice to the cinematography by Pierre Lhomme and Walter Wottitz. While much of the film is very gloomy in terms of lighting, only on a few occasions is the transfer too dark to see detail.
  • Documentaries. Two films by Dominique Maillet: Army of Shadows… The Hidden Side of the Story and Jean-Pierre Grumbach, aka Cartier, aka Melville—Resistance Fighter and Filmmaker. Both films focus very much on Melville himself and the influence of his wartime experiences (“Grumbach”, in the title of the second film, refers to his real name; “Melville” was a pseudonym). Army of Shadows… The Hidden Side of the Story was made in 2013 and has already been available on disc elsewhere, but it’s substantial and stylishly made nonetheless. The second film appears to be new to this disc.
  • English and French subtitles.
  • English and French menus.
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Cast & Crew

director: Jean-Pierre Melville.
writer: Jean-Pierre Melville (based on the book by Joseph Kessel).
starring: Lino Ventura, Paul Meurisse, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Simone Signoret, Claude Mann, Paul Crauchet, Christian Barbier, Serge Reggiani & André “Colonel Passy” Dewavrin.