Everything I read about Army of Shadows said the movie is about the French Resistance, but it’s not, not really. The protagonists of the 1969 film, released for the first time in the United States this year, could be resisting virtually any repressive regime. The movie doesn’t concern itself with why these people are resisting their occupiers, how they’re doing so, or why few of their countrymen are supporting them. It doesn’t provide much in the way of back story either; we don’t know much about these people outside of their secret lives as part of the Resistance.
Army of Shadows focuses almost solely on the toll of plotting in secret and fighting in the shadows. It is about courage and loyalty and mortality. The close-ups of battered, bloodied faces keep it from becoming metaphoric — such graphic depictions of torture make the reality of physical danger inescapable — but Army of Shadows is still an extraordinarily introspective film, not a traditional war movie or a thriller by any stretch.
Lino Ventura stars as Gerbier, the leader of a small cell of Resistance fighters, among them Jean François (Jean-Pierre Cassel) and the indefatigable Mathilde (Simone Signoret). Over the course of several months, members of the cell deal with a traitor in their midst, visit backers in London, scheme to rescue jailed comrades, and face unimaginable torture upon arrest. They endure the torture with heroic, even superhuman stoicism. The cracks in their resolve surface when they have to inflict pain themselves and execute a turncoat.
Army of Shadows has no over-arching plot; it is a series of episodes, some extraordinarily powerful, some surprisingly unconvincing. The first execution scene, for example, is sharp and tense: Members of the cell search for a way to dispatch the traitor silently and humanely. They are not blood-thirsty, we quickly realize. They kill the traitor out of sense of duty more than anything — the spy must be eliminated — and that sense of duty, born out of resignation as much as heroism, helps us understand the fighters’ actions throughout the rest of the film. Other scenes are not quite so revealing and well-realized. Gerbier’s near-escape from a firing squad is one of my least favorite. Highly improbable and marred by a ramblingly philosophical interior monologue, the episode breaks the movie’s momentum and mood.
The movie’s mood is, in fact, highly erratic, swinging from coolly dispassionate storytelling to dreamy dulce et decorum est romance with little warning. One Resistance fighter allows his compatriots to believe he has abandoned them so that he can get himself arrested and jailed with an old war buddy. The man comforts his dying friend — they both have been subjected to horrific torture — and then pulls a small box of cyanide capsules from his pocket. In a way, it’s a lovely scene — Cassel is a beautifully expressive actor — but at the same time, I found myself rebelling against the likelihood of this course of action, not to mention the probability that the friend would have any cyanide to share. The guards didn’t search him before they threw him in the torture tank? Really?
Yet a few scenes later, I felt churlish for raising my eyebrows. At its best, writer-director Jean-Pierre Melville’s screenplay is spare and economical, his direction sure-footed and quietly dramatic. The character of Mathilde is particularly memorable: not a trembling ingénue or a breathlessly devoted girlfriend but a strong, resourceful, unflappable middle-aged woman, a fighter in her own right. If the movie idealizes her a bit, one key character knocks her off her pedestal and rightfully so. Indeed, Mathilde’s ultimate fate — depicted without sentimentality or condescension — is the movie’s climax.
To my mind, the flaws of Army of Shadows — its improbable plot turns, its bouts of mawkishness — keep it from being quite the masterpiece that some have described, but it is undoubtedly worth seeing. The whole might be uneven, but some of the parts are gems of filmmaking. Part of me wishes that the movie were more grounded in history — Melville was a French Resistance fighter himself, so he had the background for such storytelling — but perhaps the timelessness and placelessness of Army of Shadows make it stronger: not an artifact but a vital memorial to those who resisted the Nazis in France and those who continue to resist repressive regimes today.