Army of Shadows
by Dan Schneider

Oftentimes, critics like to toss around terms like great, masterpiece, brilliant, etc., just to blow their own horns, or to jump on a bandwagon started rolling by a big name critic (this is called critical cribbing, and also involves the pilfering of review points from others). But, more often than not, the real reasons such terms are loosely bandied about is because most critics are simply lazy, too lazy to actually invest some time in engaging the film, book, artwork, theory as they are, by dint of their profession, supposed to. What happens, then, is that this overpraise boxes a critic in, especially when a true masterpiece, or great film, comes along, because you end up with a pantheon of art that is mostly solid to good, at best; thus effectively making the praise they offer to truly great art meaningless, for it is indistinguishable from that offered to the merely solid. A good recent example of this comes from the 2006 American release of Jean-Pierre Melville's film on the French Resistance during World War Two, Army Of Shadows (L'Armée Des Ombres).

Simply put, the film is a good, sometimes very good film. But, compared to other war films, other films on the second World War specifically, it simply does not measure up. It has been claimed that Melville was France's equivalent to Alfred Hitchcock, and this is a pretty good comparison. No, Hitchcock was not capable of some of the subtleties (narrative and symbolic) that Melville employs in this film, but Melville is not capable of infusing his film with anything of a deeper resonance either. In short, Melville--like Hitchcock--was a good craftsman, but no auteur. There was no 'original fire' that leapt from his maw, the way it did from a Federico Fellini, Ingmar Bergman, or Yasujiro Ozu, at the height of their powers. And one need only compare a film like this, or Melville's other gangster films, to the screen gems put out by Akira Kurosawa in the same era. While Melville is every bit the technician Kurosawa was, there simply is a gaping chasm between the men's oeuvres in terms of the screenwriting, character development, and other less technical matters.

So, while all the praise heaped upon the film in 2006 by American critics is overblown (as was the then contemporaneous mauling of the film by French critics), a clear look at the film reveals a flawed, but still engaging bit of entertainment. And, I stress the word entertainment over art, not just because it implies a lesser thing (which it does), but because it properly places the film in its most proper container, one in which it deserves the plaudits of critics. It is not a full meal, but it is a tasty little repast. The 1943 book by Joseph Kessel was modeled on many now legendary members of the Resistance, and was adapted for the screen by Melville in 1969. The film plays from October of 1942 through February of 1943, and follows Resistance leader Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura), a civil engineer who has been caught and put in a detention camp, before he is handed over to the Nazis. Waiting for interrogation, Gerbier kills a guard and escapes to Marseilles, where he joins up with other members in their struggles against the German occupation.

Since the Resistance actually did little to free their own country, despite myths to the contrary, Melville wisely avoids hagiography. Yet, critics accused Melville and the film of exactly that, at least in regards to one brief scene in London where Charles De Gaulle appears to greet the fighters. At the time, critics ripped the film as 'Gaullist' because at that time, De Gaulle was considered a reactionary, and against the student movement of the time. Also, Marcel Ophüls' 1969 documentary, The Sorrow And The Pity, destroyed French beliefs about the wartime occupation, the Resistance, and Vichy collaboration. Yet, this provides an abject lesson on why the politicization of art and criticism fails, for to look at this minor scene and see it as having any import within the film, much less without, shows just how addled the French critics of the day were. In short, ephemera does not last, and few critics can discern ephemera from that which lasts, that which is essential. And, it was largely for this reason the film spent nearly 40 years in the dustbin.

The two disk DVD, put out by The Criterion Collection, is one of their better offerings. First, the 145 minute long film, well restored in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio, stands alone on Disk One. The audio commentary by film historian Ginette Vincendeau is rather pedestrian. Rarely does she break from her voluminous (and often pointless) notes to actually engage a scene the way a true art lover would, and the few times she does, she strays into the worst sort of purple prose, such as 'imparting a majestic rhythm,' which means nothing. I've heard worse and more robotic commentaries, but I've also heard many better ones. Disk Two contains the best extras. These include recent crew interviews, classic interviews with Melville and the actors, a short on the making of the film, a 1944 documentary on the French Resistance, and a film restoration demonstration. The subtitles are in typical Criterion white, but as this film is in color, it does not wash out against whites. However, Melville wisely does not translate the German the Nazis speak. This works because their actions are so obvious and spare that translating them would be superfluous, but also because it leaves a sense of otherness to the Germans that translating their words would remove, an important key to understanding the motivations of the Resistance--they, too, are murderers, but they see the Nazis as alien, different from them (as they are in the scene where Gerbier and other captives are sadistically told to run away from machine gun fire, only to have Gerbier improbably rescued), and by refusing to translate the Germans' words, the viewers are emotionally put in the same boat as the Resistance fighters.

Despite this, the film is in no way realistic. This is seen early, in etched cinematography of rain (an old B film trick) that is shown as the car holding Gerbier is on a dirt road that is unmuddied, and in which no drops fall into puddles. Later, when we see Gerbier ready to parachute back into France, the shots of the airplane are obviously model work, and the airborne explosions very silly looking. Pierre Lhomme, the cinematographer, has explained this as stylization, and that works, to a point, but, sometimes such just reveals budget limitations. That said, at least Melville does not lard his film with the pretense that the younger New Wave directors did. And it is this fact that lets his enjoyable film avoid most of the pitfalls of datedness that affect those directors' films. Neither the editing by Françoise Bonnot nor the scoring by Éric de Marsan are particularly noteworthy.

Army Of Shadows ultimately rises and falls on the strength of its screenplay, which, while not deep, is not as predictable as most Nazi films. While there is a sense of the ultimate doom for the characters, it's the how of their doom, not the why, that matters, and keeps the viewer watching. This fact lets the film find its own level as a good film, a very good film at its best, but nothing near a masterpiece. Sorry, critics old and young.

©2010 Dan Schneider