Jean-Pierre Melville's 1969 masterpiece, Army of Shadows, opens on a shot so darkly ironic that its minimalism scours out any potential fleck out of humor. A static shot framing the Arc de Triomphe bears witness to a procession of marching Nazis, the symbol of French victory now a paean to conquering foes. It establishes the tone of this film, set mostly in twilight when metallic blue night pushes the sun out of view: Melville's film is an ironic, regretful and sad. The latter is what struck me the most. I cannot think of another war film so bitterly rueful, even films about modern, questionably justified conflicts. This is a film about noble resistance that depicts how ignoble that resistance could be. When the film was released in the aftermath of another great insurrection in France, I suspect its hostile reception was less the result of its ostensible glorification of the subsequently reviled De Gaulle (who barely features, and not altogether flatteringly at that) but the implications and warnings at least partially aimed at the new radical left.
Yet the film is broadly nonjudgmental, not of resistance fighters who must sacrifice their morals in time of war; not the Vichy collaborators guilty of the sin of not wishing to die; not even the Germans, who, on the existential spectrum of violence presented in the film, appear merely to exist at the far edges where they have become violence itself rather than perpetrators of it. Army of Shadows shows feats of incredible courage, but that heroism is flecked with contradictions and contextualized around displays of realistic interaction between conquered and conqueror. How was this viewed as some piece of De Gaulle fluff again?
Moving from its stark opening shot to a police van carrying a dissident to a prisoner camp, Army of Shadows brilliantly and amusingly sets up the anticlimax of this spectral war within the war even as it subtly lays down its more sinister undercurrent. Lino Ventura, squat and puffy as Philippe Gerbier, does not especially look like an inspiring rebel, and one initially wonders if he hasn't simply been sent away on a trumped-up charge. And if you think he looks paunchy, just wait until you get a load of the officer riding with him, notably a Vichy cop instead of a German soldier. The rosy cheeked fellow is affable and smiling—were the film remade today in English, I'd cast Jim Broadbent in this role in half a second—even stopping to get some black market food from a local. But as he reassures Gerbier of the prison's relative comfort, the officer only lets on the madness and desperation clouding collaborators' perception, never openly acknowledging the fact that he's helping lock away a fellow countrymen for trying to free that nation from foreign oppression. By the same token, this attempt at kindness on his and other Vichy officers' behalf suggests a dormant sympathy that expresses itself in erratic, subconscious ways. Melville's spaciousness imbues all his characters with a sense of larger importance, and it's hard not to look at the actions and tone of the Vichy cops as a microcosm for Vichy France's conflicting attitudes of sympathy and hostility to those who would end Nazi rule.
Soon, Melville makes clear that Gerbier is not simply some wrongly convicted schmuck caught up in Vichy crackdowns. Ventura's plush physicality ends at his lined, harsh face, always furrowed in concentration as he schemes. Not even Alain Delon's inscrutable face in Le Samourai can match Ventura's impenetrable visage; take one good look at his face and any doubts that he can operate a resistance network vanishes, and it's also clear that all he can think about in captivity is getting out to rejoin the fight. A transfer to a Gestapo headquarters presents Gerbier the opportunity of escape, and the first thing he does upon returning to Marseille is track down the resistance traitor who sold him out. He never stops plotting, either recruiting more fighters to the movement, plotting rescue attempts for captured comrades or ordering the executions of those deemed traitors, regardless of the reasons for confessing.
Information is always a valuable commodity, but it's the only weapon the resistance has in its infancy. A man does not even know that his own brother, a philosopher whose life of uninterrupted luxury is the perfect cover, or the ultimate hypocrisy. Those who give this weapon to the enemy must be dispatched, something Gerbier has come to rationalize this response with cold efficiency. He can even turn around and order the death of someone who just saved his life when she is captured and threatened into compliance.
Melville structures the violence in the film to be far more disturbing and protracted when it is practiced internally. Gerbier's escape from the Gestapo is quick and nasty, Melville using sudden quick cuts of action close-ups and jumped angles to show the resistance fighter grabbing a German's knife and driving it into the soldier's throat. But when Gerbier subsequently returns to his cell and his associates bring him the man who sold him out, the traitor's death is agonizingly protracted. First the men drag him down back alleys to get to a secluded apartment, the few people they pass along the way casting sidelong glances but remaining silent. Melville's macabre sense of irony comes to the fore when Gerbier, his friend Lepercq, and a new recruit who calls himself "La Masque" suddenly have to debate over tactics when they realize that a family next door will hear them if they shoot the traitor. La Masque, who wanted a tougher assignment and picked his hard-edged nickname to feel more important, blanches at Gerbier's assertion that they must strangle the man, and when Lepercq wraps a towel around the piteously whimpering betrayer's throat and turns a handle to slowly suffocate him, those moans get louder but more distorted, each creak of the tightening towel adding to the agonizingly silent murder.
This is not sadism, certainly not in the sense that a later scene in which Germans force prisoners to run in front of machine gun fire for sport is sadistic. This is a rebellion in its birth pains, when its fighters must still wrestle with their morality. Melville, whose involvement in the resistance is disputed in terms of extent but not in basic participation, understands the sacrifices that must be made in war, and he does not present these men simply as villains. After they kill the traitor, the three fighters sit in the darkened room, internalizing their actions, processing the guilt. It's reminiscent of some of the more ingeniously horrific strategies of totalitarian regimes like the Soviet Union or Saddam's Iraq, wherein those not purged must accept some degree of shared culpability in the fates of those not so fortunate.
Perhaps, then, the overcast tones of the film's lighting and color scheme refer to more than merely the eclipsing oppression of Nazi rule. Demonstrating the falling shadow of this morally skewed army could be another reason. When sunlight finally pierces this movie, it's hazy and blinding, the way sunlight is always more stinging when it pokes through a cloud than it is nakedly exposed, though the visual suggestion of the lighting is as plausible a metaphor for the brightness of French spirit poking through those clouds. That moral ambiguity reflects the film's own take on the resistance, for while it does show horrific acts perpetuated by the fighters, it does have its moments of heroism. Having escaped to London, Gerbier and a comrade do not relax but keep working to convert more to the cause. Their attempts to woo the British clash with De Gaulle, who royally pissed off everyone during his stay in London; when he appears to give a medal to Luc Jardine, the philosopher/resistance leader, De Gaulle seems an isolated figure surviving on cult of personality at home. Far from lionizing him, Melville clearly demarcates De Gaulle's long-distance support from true, grisly involvement and suggests that, as Amy Taubin says, "his heroism would not outlive the extreme circumstances in which the war had placed him." And when Gerbier learns that his friend has been captured and tortured, he immediately has himself flown back into France, the rickety prop-job and sight of the man taping his glasses to his head before parachuting adding a splash of humor at the difference between De Gaulle's comfort and the little absurdities experienced by those in the action.
That humorous visualization is but one of several amusing touches even in the tensest moments. Running down the streets in Paris after escaping the Gestapo headquarters, Gerbier ducks into a barber shop where the owner has a Pétain poster. To make sure the barber doesn't sell him out, Gerbier pretends that he just sprinted in the place for a late-night shave, which Melville presents with idiosyncratic editing, spending quite a bit of time on the lather as nervous, suspecting glances are exchanged, only to then cut to the end of the shave as the barber is revealed to harbor De Gaullist sympathies. A certain visual gallows humor frames the citizens of both France and Britain and how they get by during the war, the quid pro quo dealings between local Frenchmen and Vichy officers contrasted with the attempts to grin and bear the Luftwaffe bombings in London. English officers even dance with nurses as the walls shake from nearby bomb reports.
In the clearest demonstration how the radical revolutionaries of the day eventually become quaint, even reactionary by modern standards, Melville shows the two resistance fighters walking out of a screening of Gone With the Wind beaming, Gerbier stating, "The war will be over for the French when they can see this great movie." To him, the rebel fighters pushing back against a slash-and-burn northern invader is inspirational, not heeding the reactionary politics that caused that particular schism.
These minute observations, always so suggestive and so often humorous, are the purest expression of Melville's capacities as a filmmaker, his simultaneous attention and disregard to detail. Characters in his films plan, always plan, but dumb luck is inevitably the deciding part of the equation, though "luck" is the wrong word, for despite its neutral meaning it has positive connotations. Fate itself seems to intervene in schemes, from Alain Delon's hitman being spotted to Gerbier's initial prison escape thwarted by transfer to the Gestapo, which he compensates for with an almost comically spur-of-the-moment, literal cut and run. Mathile (Simone Signoret, putting all of her worldly knowledge into the part of the spy no enemy ever seems to suspect) hatches a suicidal plot to bail Lepercq out of prison, and her scheme actually works, only for the prison doctor to refuse to release him to Mathilde's
"nurse" because he's been tortured so badly he can't travel.
Through it all, Melville frames the film as one long sigh of regret, a recognition of the necessity of uncompromising actions even as it reflects upon the horrors buried in a national sense of guilt. One final murder seals this sense of reluctant obligation, a means of practicing inhuman acts without losing one's human processing of them. Melville honors the heroic actions of these men and women, but on an intimate, not particularly rousing scale. Melville's camera, despite its aesthetic distance and coolness, shows us the intimate nature of war, where a battle is merely the exchange of information and the ultimate show of fraternité is giving a tortured comrade one's only cyanide pill to ease his passing, thus ensuring the man left behind will have no choice but to endure the atrocity about to be visited upon him. Though the film points to the much larger and much tougher Maquis network and to the retributive zeal of the épuration sauvage, it also demonstrates how such fevered passion began and developed from minute, human acts and beliefs.
It is next to impossible to depict war without either glorifying it or arriving at the easy conclusion that all conflict is a waste, but Melville captures the post-hangover meditation after the V-day revelry. Without waving the flag and tugging at the audience to mourn fallen heroes, he creates a genuine sadness for these troubled rebels. And while the film darkly ends with one last self-inflicted wound and text cards spelling out the doom awaiting these figures, its visual coda of being waved past the Arc de Triomphe as the car starts to drive away, is quietly hopeful, moving away from the symbol of war and looking forward to the peace that would have to be so dearly bought.