Monday, March 23, 2015

Jean-Pierre Melville | L’armée des ombres (Army of Shadows)

black out
by Douglas Messerli 

Jean-Pierre Melville (writer, based on a novel by Joseph Kessel, and director) L’armée des ombres (Army of Shadows) / 1969

Jean-Pierre Melville’s intense drama of the French Resistance during the early years World War II begins with the arrestment of Philippe Gerbier (Lina Ventura)—leader of a network of Resistance workers in Marseille—a scene filled with ironies that extend to the entire film after. Gerbier is seen by the Vichy government as possibility a De Gaullist, but they, clearly, are unaware of his position, so they put him in a relatively empty camp built originally for German prisoners. Three of the prisoners with he must share quarters are ridiculous fools, men arrested for various infractions that have little to do with commitment to the French cause. The other two men are Communists, one a former teacher who is dying and the other a young electrician who is devoted to his dying friend and possibly his lover. When the friend dies, the young electrician, in charge of the camp’s power plant, confesses to Gerbier his plan to escape. The two are about to accomplish that escape, but Gerbier is again taken into custody for an inquiry in Paris by the Nazi superiors. While waiting for the meeting, he and another man make their escape, and Gerbier returns to his fellow workers.
     The next scene reveals the sad series of events that seems to dominate the underground activities. Three of Gerbier’s men, Félix Lepercq (Paul Crauchet), Guuillaume Vermersch, a rotund being known as Le Bison (Christian Barbier), and Claude Ullmann, known as La Masque (Claude Mann), have picked up another of their agents, Paul Dounat, and have been ordered to execute him for having betrayed Gerbier. Having never killed before, the three are flummoxed when they perceive, given that strangers have recently moved next door to the apartment they have rented, that they cannot use their guns to shoot Dounat; they have no silencers. Seeking a knife, they find no such tool in the apartment, and they are forced to strangle the young man, tears flowing down his eyes as they themselves suffer in horrified silence for their actions.

     With Lepercq’s recruitment of an old, risk-loving former pilot friend, Jean-François Jardie (Jean-Pierre Cassel) and his assignment to deliver up a transmitter to a housewife in the underground, Mathilde (Simone Signoret), we now have met almost all of the secret Resistance workers—except the very head of the organization, who turns out to be Jardie’s philosopher brother, who lives in what appears to be a removed life in a Paris mansion. Even the younger Jardie has no idea of his brother’s role.

     In short, nobody in this film is who he appears to be, not even, at moments, to their own knowledge of themselves. Driven by a cause larger than themselves, they must act as pawns in a larger game, jumping from planes without any lessons in parachuting, helping their own kind to escape from impossible situations when they are arrested, and killing members of their own network when it appears they might be likely to provide information. Some of their undertakings, moreover, work at odds with the others of their group.

     When Lepercq is arrested and tortured in a Gestapo prison, the younger Jardie pretends to resign and, sending an incriminating letter about himself to the authorities, allows himself be also be arrested and placed in a cell with Lepercq. Meanwhile Mathilde and others have concocted a complex plot to save Lepercq, but they arrive too late, as he too sick to survive travel, little knowing that now Jardie, who also has been tortured, will soon be in the same position.
     When Gerbier is again arrested, Mathilde and others plot a remarkable escape, based on their  knowledge that as he and others are about to be shot, the SS officer’s play a sadistic game of forcing them to run like scarred rabbits. Gerbier, who at first refuses to play along, is almost shot, but when he finally does run, is miraculously saved.
      Yet soon after Mathilde herself is arrested, and, since the Nazi’s have taken in her daughter, she is no longer to be trusted; Gerbier has no choice but to order Mathilde to be killed. 
       Indeed, by film’s end, we realize that within another year of the occupation, all of these figures have died or committed suicide. 
       Despite their heroic actions, accordingly, they have little effect. The Maquis, by film’s end, seem to have become more successful than the complex machinations of theses underground warriors.
     Although Melville filmed in color, the hues of his scenes are so dark that we often perceive the images as being in black and white. After each sequence, moreover, the camera goes black for what appear to be longer and longer periods, as if to suggest that the characters and the viewer are moving down a dark tunnel where any possible vision of reality becomes increasingly unreliable. 
     At one moment, while visiting Britain in order to request materials and funds, Gerbier is caught on the street during a black out and, momentarily, seems unable to know where to turn. Through a small crack of light, coming from a nearby window, he perceives there is action within, and he enters to find that, despite the dangerous and deadened world outside, the room is filled with young soldiers, sailors, and uniformed women dancing as if nothing were wrong with the world. But it is, we quickly perceive, a kind of joyless dance, a dance of death. 
     Bravery, cunning, love, and violence in Army of Shadows all seem meaningless, since no action, no matter how committed to purpose (or how existentialist) the actor might be, can save anyone’s life. Even if one might survive the horrible world in which they are trapped and tortured, the survivors are hunted down and destroyed by their kind.
     The bleak view represented in this film was apparently unperceived upon its original showing, when French critics took it to task for glorifying Charles de Gaulle, a highly unpopular position given the ravages of the Algerian War. And the film was not released in the U.S. for nearly 40 years. Thank heaven for the restoration and re-release in 2006, as well as its DVD appearance in the Criterion collection.

Los Angeles, March 23, 2015

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