The Moral Quandary of Jean-Pierre Melville’s ‘Army of Shadows’ is Still Relevant Today

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With the horrible attacks in Paris last week, many people put aside their long-running jokes about the French and their reputation to surrender, a reputation earned during World War II for the nations quick fall to Nazi forces. But what those undying jokes are rooted in is a misconception about the French people, as if the entirety of the nation would rather sip wine and eat cheese than defend their homeland against the fascist invaders. In fact, it was the Vichy Regime that acquiesced to the forces of evil in order to retain power, and instituted their own authoritarian regime under the aegis of the Nazis. Meanwhile, countless French individuals from all walks of life took up arms in order to undermine the fascist forces patrolling their land. It was the tireless efforts of these brave people that participated in the French Resistance that should render all those tired jokes moot.

One such member of the French Resistance was Jean-Pierre Grumbach, but he would later take up a new surname and is commonly known as Jean-Pierre Melville. After the war, Melville became a prominent filmmaker with his cool stylistic films like Le Samouraï and Le Cercle Rouge. Yet Melville seemed like a transitional force – not quite a director of the French New Wave and not traditionalist enough to fall in a classical category. In 1969, Melville would release one of his most controversial films, Army of Shadows. Based on the novel by Joseph Kessel, Army of Shadows is a slightly fictionalized version of Kessel’s real life exploits with the Resistance, something Melville knew plenty about himself. The film wasn’t a critical hit at the time. Its pro-de Gaulle sentiment was politically out of date, his popularity declining with the protest of May ’68 and the Battle of Algiers raging on.

The larger political events surrounding the film led to an underwhelming performance at the box office and it was not released outside of France for decades. What prints remained fell into poor condition and it wasn’t widely available until a restoration in 2006. As happens, its reissue gave Army of Shadows new life and a critical reevaluation. As they’ve done multiple times this year, the good people of Rialto Pictures have restored Army of Shadows once again, giving Melville’s underseen film another chance to enthrall audiences with its thrilling espionage and exciting cinematic technique.

Army of Shadows opens with Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura), a key member of the Resistance, captured by the Vichy Regime and transported to a camp on the French countryside. His bunkmates in this dank hellhole are there for various crimes committed against the state, like being a Catholic or Communist or anything that doesn’t jibe with the authoritarian regime. When transferred to Paris for questioning by the Nazis, Gerbier makes a daring escape and returns to hiding in Paris. From there Gerbier and his various associates, including Luc Jardie (Paul Meurisse), Jean-François Jardie (Jean-Pierre Cassel), Mathilde (Simone Signoret), Félix Lepercq (Paul Crauchet), Le Bison (Christian Barbier), and Le Masque (Claude Mann), must think of different ways to elude the authorities and undermine their brutal regime. Each person is forced in and out of hiding, depending on who has drawn the most attention recently, and are driven by paranoia, not only of the fascists but of those who may have been compromised by the fascists and thus a potential deadly liability. Gerbier travels to London to request supplies and aid in their fight, but are rebuked since the British leadership has little faith in their ability to defeat the fascists. But Gerbier and his colleagues continue their fight even though the grim specter of death looms over each and every one of them.

If there’s a contemporary film that most resembles Army of Shadows, I would say that it’s Steven Spielberg’s Munich, though Army of Shadows doesn’t contain one of the most unfortunate sex scenes I’ve ever seen in a movie. But each film is about a unit operating under the cover of darkness to root out the perpetrators of evil, yet it comes with a deeply personal cost. In Melville’s film, there are heart-wrenching moments where former allies are forced to turn on one another, their paranoia proven to be the only thing keeping them alive.

As much as the members of the Resistance that make up Army of Shadows’ rosters of characters face the external conflict with the Nazi occupiers, they’re forced to fight on a different front – for their very humanity. These common folk driven into the world of war are now in unimaginable positions where a strained loyalty or betrayal could leave them seeking to kill a former comrade. Army of Shadows paints war as a battlefield without winners, where good men and women are driven to the darkest recesses of human nature. However, the evil that they face outweighs the greater moral struggle, thus making this moral quandary necessary if unsettling.

It’s obvious that the visuals that Melville employs in Army of Shadows have greatly influenced many great filmmakers, including Martin Scorsese among others. Yet Melville’s stylistic flourishes are restrained. Never at any point will Melville use camera movement or editing to distract from the dramatic tension at hand, only to amplify. There are a great number of today’s filmmakers who could greatly benefit from understanding how Melville employs his camera movements as punctuation, not the point.

Army of Shadows is a film of incredible restraint considering the darkened moral background that its characters face. That being said, Melville doesn’t hide the ugly side of either flag in the conflict, but he does make clear who the good guys are, though they have to cross lines that are unimaginable to most people. Sadly, Melville didn’t make too many more movies after Army of Shadows. He passed away in 1973 at the age of 55 due to a heart attack. Though Army of Shadows wasn’t given a fair shake in its own time, the cinema is eternal and films that were wrongly disregarded are reevaluated free from the political and social constraints that may have left them the object of scorn upon release – this does go both ways, too. Melville’s epic will endure because it’s about the moral questions of loyalty and betrayal in times of war, and it’s a portrait that is still vital to this very day. Army of Shadows certainly isn’t escapist fun, but its messages must be heard loud and clear lest we find ourselves back in the darkness.

Army of Shadows is currently playing at Ahrya Fine Arts Theater in Beverly Hills through Nov 26th. 

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