Thursday, 29 June 2017

Army of Shadows (L'armée des ombres) - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Grim, Haunting Portrait of Collaboration and Resistance at Toronto's TIFF Bell Lightbox in summer 2017 series "Army of Shadows: The Films of Jean-Pierre Melville" and, via a gorgeous (O.O.P. limited availability) Blu_Ray/DVD via the Criterion Collection

Collaboration is a dirty business. So is Resistance.

Army of Shadows AKA L'armée des ombres (1969)
Dir. Jean-Pierre Melville
Nvl. Joseph Kessel
Starring: Lino Ventura, Simone Signoret, Jean-Pierre Cassel,
Christian Barbier, Paul Crauchet, Claude Mann, Paul Meurisse, Serge Reggiani

Review By Greg Klymkiw

Collaboration is a dirty business. So is resistance. In an occupied country, both will thrive, yet seldom have either been more grim, mean and downright foul than in France during World War II.

Jean-Pierre Melville's film adaptation of Joseph Kessel's fictionalized version of his own real-life experience during this shameful period of 20th Century French History is not only a masterpiece, but it might be one of the most heroic depictions of the French Resistance ever made. That said, Melville's brand of heroism is replete with relentless outrage and deep, deep anguish.

Army of Shadows (L'armée des ombres) will be a bitter pill for any audience to swallow, but its necessity might be more urgent now than ever. "Occupation" of one country by another has become especially endemic to the ongoing and mounting political strife plaguing our world in this century and has resulted in the kind of "collaboration" and "resistance" that ripped the guts out of France and so many other European countries during the Second World War. One of the most fascinating features/attributes of Melville's picture is the fact that it stands before us as a film made almost half a century ago, about events that occurred almost one quarter of a century before the film itself was made, and yet here we sit, now, looking at it, our jaws agape over the cruelties and complexities the movie depicts, and realizing, ever-sadly, how so little, how so goddamn little in our world has actually changed.

It's a movie of universal qualities. The picture comes by them due to the strange narrative and stylistic structures Melville has chosen to infuse it with, all of which place us in a world that, from beginning to end, knock us off-kilter, keep us on edge and finally instil in us a dread that its events, which once happened, are indeed happening now and will happen again and again if we do not, by both acknowledgment and action, recognize and work towards ensuring that it stops.

Melville creates a film here that rubs our noses in the fact that our very nature as human beings is highly susceptible to the damage caused by occupation and how the inevitable resulting collaboration with occupying forces yields the kind of self-serving selfishness (the selfishness of survival, if you will) which gives way to the kind of inhumanity that even resistance can engender.

So how then, does he do this?

The first thing Melville chooses to greet us with are words.

Popping up from deep black, brilliant white typeface announces:

"Unhappy memories! Yet I welcome you...You are my long lost youth..."

My God, was there ever an epigram infused with more truth?

There is no elegant fade to black from these words, no gentle dissolve. Melville jolts us with a cut and the beautifully composed long shot he bestows upon us is that of the Arc de Triomphe de l'Étoile, that glorious symbol of France's victories over those who would dare profane French soil - a testament to the fallen warriors of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars and, indeed, the resting place of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier from World War I.

The Eiffel Tower might well be the ultimate symbol of Paris, but situated at one end of the Champs-Élysées, smack in the middle of the now-named Place Charles de Gaulle, but the more evocatively once-named Place de l'Étoile, the imposing Arch of Triumph remains, for most of us, the definitive apogee of France itself.

And we sense, immediately, that something is amiss. It's not the shot itself, nor is it the the drumbeats and marching feet from a line of soldiers on parade that slowly creep onto the soundtrack and intensify, but rather, it's the sky towering above the grand arch, so grey, so weirdly forbidding in the drabness of the clouds that makes us uneasy.

The camera never moves - or so it seems. Initially, the soldiers are so far away from us they're dwarfed by the Arch itself. As the parade gets closer and the music and marching become ever-cacophonous: beats, bleats, blasts and finally a blare - we're jolted into reality and the camera does indeed shift, ever-so subtly for us to realize that the soldiers are Nazis. As they get closer, filling the frame, defaming the composition of the Arch itself, our nerves are jangled.

And we are sickened.

Things don't get brighter. Melville bestows the rest of the opening of the film in swathes of dull blues, greens and greys as we're introduced to the well-groomed civil engineer Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura) who is being driven to a prison camp filled with "enemies" of the collaborationist Vichy government of France, the ruling bureaucracy which has prostrated itself before the Germans who have swallowed the country whole as an occupying force.

Dirty Nazis.

Dirtier still are the French - or rather, those Frenchmen who betray their soil, their nation and their people to serve the foul occupiers.

Phillipe is treated by his captors in a relatively gentlemanly fashion. Housed in a barracks that was ironically designed by the French to house German officers, but is instead now populated by Frenchmen, the pensive, almost bookish prisoner has little regard for his fellow captives, until he takes a shine to a bright young man who proposes a brilliant plan of escape.

This will be our (and Phillipe's) first taste of betrayal in the film. The vibrant youthful co-conspirator sells out our hero to the Vichy pigs and he soon finds himself transported to a Nazi facility. Phillipe escapes (quickly, efficiently and shockingly engineered) and we eventually find him ensconced on the Riviera where he leads the French Resistance movement.

From here, the film charts a series of resistance movements - some successful, and others scuttled by either circumstance or worse (and most often), betrayal. Occupying forces count on the Judas Kiss and Melville's film doesn't spare its characters from being forced to sell out. Then again, and most tragically, the film doesn't save several other characters from refusing to turncoat, and what awaits them is torture and inevitably, agonizing death. And though we see numerous instances of characters succumbing to the equivalents of the "death-by-a-thousand-cuts", Melville conversely doesn't spare an equal number of them from being snuffed out brutally and swiftly.

Throughout his career, Melville 's approach to on-screen violence was unique in its savage efficiency and in Army of Shadows, we are "treated" to several instances of this, so ferocious in the barbarity of the acts, that we're forced to cringe and gasp through several agonizing stranglings, stabbings, beatings and shootings. From a tea towel garrotte wrenching a traitor's last gasps of air to a cold, hard pistol appearing out of nowhere, pausing to give its intended victim a few moments of recognition and then, the inevitable, the blast of a gunshot, the piercing of flesh and death that is as merciful as it is cruel.

There are, of course, moments of tenderness, love, loyalty and yes, even hope. However, the film's overall tone is one of despair. The picture begins as it ends, beginning with one thing and allowing it to transform into something quite different - jolting us out of anything resembling comfort or complacency.

Yes, amongst the army of shadows in this horrific topsy-turvy world of collaboration and resistance, there is heroism, but nobody - nobody is a winner.


Army of Shadows AKA L'armée des ombres is being screened during the TIFF Bell Lightbox series entitled "Army of Shadows: The Films of Jean-Pierre Melville" and is available on the Criterion Collection in a (limited availability O.O.P.) BLU-RAY and DVD that includes an audio commentary with film historian Ginette Vincendeau, an interview with editor Françoise Bonnot, On-set footage and excerpts from archival interviews with director Jean-Pierre Melville, cast members, writer Joseph Kessel, and real-life Resistance fighters, "Jean-Pierre Melville et L’armée des ombres” (2002) and "Le journal de la Résistance" (1944), a rare short documentary shot on the front lines during the final days of German-occupied France.