Volume 19 Issue 34 | January 5 - 11, 2007
Photo courtesy Rialto Pictures
Simone Signoret, the brains and guts of the loose-knit Resistance unit in Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Army of Shadows” at Film Forum.
Ordinary people, an extraordinary Resistance
By Jerry Tallmer
They had names noms de guerre like Le Bison, Le Masque, Luc, Gerbier, Felix, Mathilde, Jean-Francois, and often one of them didn’t know anything more about the others than just that, not even Luc, who ran the whole show, or this particular Marseille-based element of it, but was unaware that his kid brother lived and died a wholly separate existence within the Resistance in the German-occupied France of 1942 and ’43.
You could call them heroes, but they were very ordinary sorts of people to start out, and that is one of the unspoken points of Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Army of Shadows,” a movie built brick by brick like a solid, trustworthy, modest, cemented wall, a memory screen unhyped by hysterics or high dramatics even during moments of betrayal or Gestapo torture “a twilight vision of the Resistance,” as Melville biographer Ginette Vincendeau puts it: the Resistance in which the 25-year-old Melville himself, a French Jew (1917-1973), had served.
The tone is set pitch-perfectly with the opening shot, a marching band coming toward us from afar through the Arc de Triomphe and then we make out the Wehrmacht uniforms underscored by a quote from the dramatist Georges Courteline: “Unhappy memories! Yet be welcome, for you are my distant youth.”
These are not Melville’s memories per se; they are those embodied in Joseph Kessel’s 1943 novel of the same title, a work that Melville wanted to make into a movie for 26 years, and finally did in 1969 when, of course, after a mixed success in France (where it was snooted as “Gaulist”), it never reached the United States.
Until now. Thanks to Bruce Goldstein and Adrienne Haplern and their Rialto Pictures, it arrived some few months ago, in a new print, at Film Forum, with the immediate result of being hailed by the critics (thanks to this U.S. premiere) as the best foreign film of the year. It played Film Forum, went away, came back again, went away again, and is now back at Film Forum once more.
At its center is a French civil engineer, Philippe Gerbier, who wears eyeglasses and a mustache and dresses like a stiff in black suit and overcoat, and, throughout the 145 minutes we spend with him and the others, pretty much behaves like a sourpuss stiff, even while, oh, killing a German guard or ordering and watching the strangulation of a young guy a Communist who has spilled the beans to the Nazis.
This Philippe Gerbier is played by Lino Ventura, an actor immensely popular in France for most of his years (1919-1987) but not overly familiar in America. What comes as a (slow-building) shock, at least to me, is how much, in this movie, he facially, physically, in vocal tone, and in control, presages the mature Robert De Niro of today.
Gerbier had been picked up and sent to a Vichy French detention camp filled with what Arthur Koestler, an inmate himself of one such, dubbed “the scum of the earth” Russians, Poles, Yugoslavs, Czechs, anti-Nazi Germans, anti-Fascists, gypsies, homosexuals, Jews of all nations.
Before Gerbier could escape, he was plucked out and dispatched to Gestapo headquarters in Paris.
It was there that he had murdered the German guard, and run. When, tearing through the streets, he dashes into a doorway that turns out to be that of a barber shop, another personal shock: The barber who silently gives him a shave and then hands him some money and a substitute gray overcoat turns out to be the actor Serge Reggiani, co-star with Simone Signoret in what, to me, is the most sensual French movie of all time, Jaques Becker’s 1952 “Casque d’Or.”
But wait! Here in just a few minutes well, more than just a few minutes is Simone Signoret herself, who in fact lived through German-occupied Paris as a teenager, now, in “Army of Shadows,” as a redheaded (not golden-haired) woman of a certain age, and girth, the brains and guts of this loose-knit Resistance unit.
It is she, Mathilde, who in widow’s weeds cases the Gestapo prison a French medical school where the Resistance’s Felix (Paul Crauchet) is being tortured to death; and then, with incredible daring, reenters the premises at the wheel of an ambulance with orders to “transfer” Felix to Paris. A German doctor refuses to allow such a close-to-death human being to be carted anywhere. Good try.
Young Jean-Francois (Jean-Pierre Cassel), having turned himself in to the Nazis for just the purpose, offers his one and only personal cyanide tablet to the pitiably battered Felix, but it is too late. I don’t know if Melville (or novelist Kessel) borrowed this moment from the famous one in the Shanghai train station in Malraux’s “Man’s Fate,” but more power to him and him if they did.
Anyway, Mathilde has the courage and, in her imperturbable way, the imagination, to set up the rescue of Gerbier from yet another Gestapo prison, and the only mistake she has made through all this is to carry on her person the photo of her 17-year-old daughter. It is a mistake that in the end will prove fatal. But not precisely in the way you think.
And Gerbier? He will have made it to London by submarine, with mathematician Luc Jardie (Paul Meurisse), the intellect of the unit London, where the Yanks and Brits are jiving to Benny Goodman’s swing, where “Gone With the Wind” is playing in Leicester Square, and where General De Gaulle pins a medal on Luc.
Then Gerbier has to hustle back to France, by parachute drop. “Army of Shadows” that brick wall is not a fast-moving motion picture. I don’t mind, for a change in fact respect it in this instance, but there were a few minutes during Gerbier’s long-drawn-out parachute drop from a plane endlessly droning over Occupied France when I wanted to yell: “So jump already!” But no, he first has to have a sandwich and a shot of brandy and some cogitation. When at last he does drop, he’s back encased in that black overcoat and still has his eyeglasses on.
Earlier, determined to walk but not run from German prison-camp machine guns, he has in fact, as he reproaches himself, “run like a rabbit.” But now he thinks he is immortal. “No one can replace me,” he tells Mathilde. “And if you’re caught?” she asks.
Indeed, this “strange carousel,” as someone calls it, ends with a short roster of those whom we’ve been watching for more than two hours: this one shot, that one dead of cyanide, the other one decapitated by an axe, yet another dead under torture. Le Bison (Christian Barbier), Le Masque (Claude Mann), all the others where are the snows of yesteryear? And where is Philippe Gerbier, a synthesis, we are told by Melville, of at least eight actual people?
Right here. In the great cliché of World War II Hollywood movies, “This is it.” It’s a line that also, weirdly, jumps out at you in English subtitle from somewhere in the middle of “Army of Shadows.” Nothing in this expedition into memory is literal. Yet all of it is.
ARMY OF SHADOWS (“L’Armee des ombres”), 1969. Directed by Jean-Pierre Melville. Screenplay by him from the novel by Joseph Kessel. 145 minutes. In French and German with English subtitles. Through January 11 at Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street, (212) 727-8110.