Coming out of the shadows

The 1969 French film “Army of Shadows” finally makes its way to American audiences

by Sara Nicole Miller

When it comes to foreign film releases, the old saying apparently still applies: better late than never.

Or so thought French film cronies when, in 2006, Rialto Pictures finally released Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1969 epic about the French Resistance, “Army of Shadows,” in the United States.

Set in 1942-1943 in France, the ominous film commences as protagonist Philippe Gerbier – an engineer by trade, resistance fighter by conviction – is transferred to an internment camp for unfortunates in Nazi-occupied France. After being handed over to the Gestapo headquarters, Gerbier makes a successful escape and returns to Marseille and the resistance network.

There, the intense Gerbier and his comrades, Félix Lepercq and a man known as Le Masque, are forced to improvise the execution of a traitor at a safe house. This harrowing, morally ambiguous action foreshadows the psychic mood that looms over much of the film.

Soon after, Gerbier leaves by nightfall on a submarine bound for London with Luc Jardié, the grand patron of the French resistance movement. Amid the extraordinary circumstances of the war, Jardié and Gerbier visit the cinema for a surreal screening of “Gone with the Wind.”

“Army of Shadows”
DIRECTED BY: Jean-Pierre Melville
STARRING: Lino Ventura, Simone Signoret
RATED: Not Rated
SHOWING AT: Oak Street Cinema through Jan. 30 (612) 331-3134

The trip is cut short, however, when Gerbier learns that Lepercq has been detained and tortured by the Gestapo in Lyon. Leaving London, he parachutes back into the French countryside and meets up with Mathilde, the mistress of disguise who has taken command after Lepercq’s detention.

An elaborate scheme to penetrate the Gestapo headquarters is hatched. After both futile and successful escapes, suicide-by-cyanide capsules and a series of devastating decisions, the film ends, if abruptly, in a fury of bleakness and unease that marked much of the French resistance movement.

The film retains a graying, minimalist ethos, portraying the psychological cost of conflict with a sense of grainy realism. The characters are created with the likes of real French resistance fighters in mind, and the sense of emotive intimacy surrounding the movement comes from Melville’s own experience as a French resistance fighter.

Melville’s removed film noir style comes out in the film. The soundscape further provokes the minimalist sense of isolation and barrenness: ticking clocks are a reoccurring dominant sound throughout the film, as well as crunching footsteps, howling wind, and the buzzing of machinery. Sharp in both mood and stylistic miscellany, the mise-en-scène and long-winded tracking shots almost hesitantly contribute to the constant state of evasion and paranoia.

With the odds of survival so slim and betrayal so prevalent, the characters’ senses of loyalty to the resistance and their own constant fears of discovery drive much of their clandestine operations. However, it is the gnawing sense of fatalism and the psychological perils of occupation that linger on the collective consciousness of France (and the viewer), that makes the film a true, fashionably late masterpiece.