Jean-Pierre Melville’s The Army of Shadows may be a revisionist and overly romantic depiction of the French Resistance during WWII, but at least it’s a compelling fairy tale, something that cannot be said about Robert Guédiguian’s The Army of Crime. Guédiguian attempts to set the record straight about the sect of guerillas—led by Armenian poet Missak Mannouchian (Simon Abkarian)—vilified by French collaborators and the Nazis occupying Paris as traitors to their country and the key instigators of the war. Tepid sequences of interminably rising action painstakingly relate the trepidation and anxiety that led up to terrorist actions that are rarely shown and almost never talked about. Unlike Melville’s wrong-headed masterpiece, Guédiguian’s film is happy to be lifeless, never putting its heroes in enough danger to keep the Resistance’s story engaging enough to be worth following for a second time.
They key difference between Melville and Guédiguian’s approaches to their overlapping material is that Guédiguian puts an emphasis on showing his freedom fighters as people defined by their domestic concerns first and then by their patriotic duties, as the former fuels the latter. This serves as the ideological foundation by which Guédiguian turns men into historical martyrs, much like the film’s opening scene, where a list of the titular army is commended for having “died for France.”
Every member of Mannouchian’s cell immediately understands the importance of taking a proactive stance to ending the war. It takes a lot longer for them to learn how to channel their need to protect their brothers, girlfriends, and parents into efficient acts of terrorism. Still, the one constant tenant of their terrorism that Guédiguian wants us to take away is that they didn’t kill women and they didn’t kill civilians. If anything, this fantasy of the blameless good guys with no innocent blood on their hands is more offensive than Melville’s tragic modernist melodrama because it assumes that the viewer should be thrilled to watch characters without any substantial doubts or flaws execute righteous murder that we never get to see. At least Melville was smart enough to focus on showing the “army of shadows” sweat while they waited for the other shoe to drop. Army of Crime doesn’t even afford the viewer that small pleasure, begging the question of why it exists in the first place.
Army of Crime will play on March 17 and 19 as part of this year’s Rendez-Vous with French Cinema series. To purchase tickets, click here.