War films rarely allow their military subjects to collect themselves after battle, often pushing them into the next conflict without much pause. Not only does this approach speak to the genre’s potent need to propel the narrative forward, momentum that favors action over reflection, it proves the potential cost of allowing soldiers to contemplate their deadly actions might be even more psychologically damaging than any penetrating bullet or exploding grenade. However, Jean-Pierre Melville’s entrancing and enigmatic WWII epic Army of Shadows makes it a point to linger on the quiet aftermath of costly decision-making rather than delving into the incendiary rush of real-time battle, and the result is a wrenching examination of wartime survival. From its strangely romantic opening quotation, “Unhappy memories! Yet I welcome you…you are my long lost youth,” to the morally ambiguous climactic assassination, this fractured mosaic of conflicted French resistance fighters creates a collective tension in the lengthy waiting game between escapes, captures, and rescues. The personal relationships, the interactions within this historical pressure cooker become intrinsically connected with the violence and subversive ideologies at play.
Melville, known for his masterfully restrained gangster films like Le Samouraï and Le Doulos, is one of the few directors willing and able to combine strikingly blunt imagery with small details of texture and character. This visual aesthetic defines Army of Shadows on many levels, and is wonderfully on display in the opening shot of an empty Champs-de-Elysees slowly flooding with a procession of Nazi troops. As the cavalcade of storm troopers march toward the camera, we get a freeze frame mid-salute, then the image fades to black. Before the picture darkens, every inch of the iconic uniforms remain in focus, Melville downsizing a larger emblem of historical evil and giving it a disturbing immediacy. This building sense of panic and fear plays a role throughout Army of Shadows, and will invariably impact how characters of all types react after experiencing trauma.
Engineer Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura), the rebellious masthead of Army of Shadows, represents the film’s fluctuating overlap between regret and pragmatism through his calm voiceover narration, words that structure the disjointed narrative in the process. These poetic musings show Melville’s appreciation for the moral complexities of war, the brutal decisions that must be made despite the tragic implications. The film opens with Gerbier sitting handcuffed in the back of a Vichy prison bus, and the sequence is a great introduction to his worn exterior demeanor. When one of his French captors explains his allegiance to the Nazis, saying, “You do what you can in these crazy times,” Gerbier smiles and nods, then looks back down at his handcuffs with not an ounce of panic or judgment. It’s as if he completely understands why desperate countrymen have betrayed France. But this calm façade hides a burning and ambitious desire to destroy Nazism, and later, when Gerbier stabs an unsuspecting guard in the throat and uses a fellow prisoner as a decoy for escape, his layered personality becomes a much darker shade of gray.
Gerbier and his close-knit crew of underground agents, including brute killer Le Bison (Christian Barbier), handsome young courier Jean Francois (Jean-Pierre Cassel), and mastermind planner Margot (Simone Signoret), operate under constant threat of capture from the often faceless Gestapo. Empty streets, dimly lit interiors, and ambient silence all echo the impending danger of betrayal and torture that could swoop in at any second. Melville infuses almost every scene with a particularly haunting drab color scheme, where a dark blue brick wall of a prison cell, black leather suits of SS officers (substitutions for his iconic gangster henchmen), and the off-green country landscapes give a feeling of both natural and physical deterioration. This is a space under constant direst, and the pragmatic way these characters glide through the suffocating locales is the film’s major statement on war film iconography.
Army of Shadows loosely follows each resistance fighter based on their value to the overarching movement, changing directions as some are killed, captured, and rendered mute. Melville brilliantly tips the scales against Gerbier and Margot in particular, pressing them with both the moral responsibility of protection and upholding the ideologies behind their actions. To sustain a place in the hierarchical resistance, each is forced to make difficult decisions that ultimately deprive them of any chance at happiness. But Melville is entirely interested in extended scenes before and after the ones most war films glamorize. While physical violence occurs quickly, lengthier character-driven sequences follow, displaying the brutal results in shocking close-ups. Two examples speak to Melville’s thematic and aesthetic focus: The teary eyed, frozen face of a Nazi mole strangled with a towel, and the battered, nearly deformed profile of Jean-Francois after being chained to a chair and tortured. These images paint a portrait of Melville’s vision of modern warfare, not on any battlefield but in the quiet, isolated rooms of a shadowy underground bursting at the seams.
Cinematic representations of WWII are often drenched in a specific nostalgia pitting Allied good versus Nazi evil. Melville upends these conventions in Army of Shadows, draining each conflict of color and each characterization of certainty. “What a strange carousel,” Gerbier states late in the film, trying and failing to understand the patterns of violence and betrayal that inevitably drives each character mad. But the merry-go-round of war isn’t about success or failure, loyalty or betrayal, but the memories situated beneath these finite terms. Melville gives his doomed characters plenty of lingering moments to remember during their final breaths, whether it’s Gerbier glance at a picture of Margot’s stunning daughter, Jean Francois’s noble decision to put a debilitated Felix out of his misery, or Le Bison defending Margot’s unflinching nobility despite her blatant treason.
But one shot reveals Melville’s lasting sense of survival more than any other. Imprisoned late in the film because of bad luck, Gerbier is taken to a confined bunker where he and fellow prisoners are forced to run down a long corridor while men fire from two machine gun nests at the opposite end. As bullets reign down from all angles, Gerbier spots a dangling rope descending from an open spot in the wall, a literal life preserver from his friends, but also a symbolic image of salvation during what seems like an inescapable moment of dread. Taking this image as its crest, Army of Shadows documents a phase of human adaptation where the details of a specific moment reflect the grander picture of political and social experience, an idea that history is not made up of dates and events, but from close-ups of living and dying faces, the widescreen vistas of poetic locations, and the lucid memories of those grappling with the possibility of endless suppression.
Banished to cinema obscurity for nearly 40 years, Army of Shadows finally found its way onto American shores via Rialto Films in 2006, then onto standard DVD in 2007 via the Criterion Collection. The 1080p Criterion Blu-ray transfer improves on the standard definition disc 10 fold, with each frame bursting with clarity and detail. Colors are all brilliantly balanced while the black levels are perfectly calibrated, making the many night sequences stand out even more than in a theatrical print. The shimmering metal of a passing train, the densely layered smoke during the aforementioned prison escape, and the blue glimmer crashing waves are just some of the stunning moments that make this Blu-ray a must have for cinephiles. The sound design is consistently excellent as well, with the original French mono soundtrack much more softer and subtle than the upgraded DTS HD-MA version. Each affords a unique way to experience Jean-Pierre Melville's crisp attention to sound cues and the minimalist musical score.
"One becomes a fighter, a warrior, very quickly. It takes much longer to stop being one." This wonderful quote by Melville anchors a 1969 short television program called "Jean-Pierre Meville, Filmmaker," both a puff piece and an interesting window into the director's relationship with actors. There's also a plodding behind-the-scenes featurette called "L'Invite Du Dimanche" that provides 30 minutes of archival footage and interviews with key cast members. There are also two revealing interviews with cinematographer Pierre Llhomme and editor Francoise Bonnot. Llhomme, charged with restoring the film for Criterion's 2006 transfer, has some particularly fascinating memories of the "authoritarian" Melville. Le Journal de la Resistance, a rare 1944 British documentary narrated by Noel Coward, provides more context to the real-life struggle within Army of Shadows. Finally, surviving cast and crew, along with some contemporary filmmakers discuss the lasting impact of Army of Shadows in "Jean-Pierre Melville et L'Armee des Ombres," a 30-minute collection of interviews that simply reinforces the film's influence on many circles of film studies. The disc's one audio commentary by historian Ginette Vincendeau gets tedious fast, something akin to listening to an interesting but dense lecture from a monotone academic. Her well-researched points grow tiresome after only a few minutes. Finally, the accompanying booklet for this disc is another stunning collection of essays, especially the one by Film Comment critic Amy Taubin, who extended her 2006 essay on the film for the Blu-ray release.
"Jean-Pierre Melville cherishes paradox and free thinking," and both elements are on beautiful display in his masterpiece Army of Shadows, now out in a ridiculously stunning Blu-ray by the Criterion Collection.