My streak of purism inevitably encourages me to seek out, even where difficult to find, obtuse, or otherwise unhelpful, the original posters for films when I write these reviews. L’armée des ombres was not easy to find, leading to this photo of an actual copy from somewhere. Probably. The film came out at an inopportune time–the French Resistance was heavily associated with Charles de Gaulle, whose administration inspired protests and strikes which he responded to with intense means (police actions, even pondering military intervention), and that meant that a film about the Resistance was taken to endorse de Gaulle. The film was practically sunk in one shot over this, so it’s a lot easier to find posters from the initial U.S. release–in 2006 (!).
Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura) is a leader of the French Resistance, acquitted but set to be interned in a camp for suspected “Gaullist sympathies”. He doesn’t stay long, and meets up with fellow members Le Bison (Christian Barbier), Le Masque (Claude Mann), Félix (Paul Crauchet), and the “Chief”, Luc Jardie (Paul Meurisse). Through a series of missions–stopping traitors to the cause, moving supplies and bodies across checkpoints and national boundaries, rescues, and combat–the groups add more voices to the cause, particularly Jean-François (Jean-Pierre Cassel, father of Vincent) and Mathilde (Simone Signoret). They are never out of danger, and are forever clawing to simply tread water–and keep their heads above it.
In the grand scheme of things–presumably, partly the interpretation that would lead to the film’s alleged “Gaullist sympathies”–one imagines the French Resistance as a noble cause, and something admirable. Melville–who worked for the Resistance himself–doesn’t exactly dissuade the notion, but hardly romanticizes the life of its members. Gerbier, Jardie, and all are composites where they aren’t outright fiction, though–even Joseph Kessel’s semi-autobiographical source book is fictionalized, and Melville has admitted to taking this even further from the realms of strict fact. That distance from fact is not, as I say, to romanticize: it is a harsh film, an oppressive and tense film. That “scraping to get by” sensibility is not just built on the tension and fear of the characters and their omnipresent danger, but in the unpleasant nature of many of the actions they find themselves forced to take: violent, depressing, difficult.
Ventura, Crauchet, Meurisse, Cassel–they all embody this, in characters who don’t utterly lack the capacity to smile or think hopeful or positive thoughts, but they certainly don’t show signs of these things with any regularity. Even the moments they seem to feel safe and relaxed, they show the tension the viewer feels. Their faces are largely stony and controlled–but these are the faces of spies spending most of their time in enemy territory, filled with the character and personality of that life, not with an absence of emotion. Signoret has a wonderful control of her face for these purposes, the most compassionate and often surprised–by virtue of her observance and level of knowledge–and does so with perfect subtlety.
Though this is only the second of Melville’s films that I’ve seen (the other being Le Samouraï), this feels very much of a kind for him. Perusing the additional materials that Criterion provided, it appears I’m not off the mark–though this is his final film about the Resistance, it shares a common visual vocabulary with the crime films that preceded it. Much as I wrote of the Alain Delon-starring crime flick, this is, visually, a very “cold” movie. The palette and cinematography (here courtesy of Pierre Lhomme) are muted and dark, both symbolizing and enhancing the dark and oppressive atmosphere of the film’s events. Similarly relevant–and entirely unsurprising for the title, and its cause in referencing actions taking place with a need for secrecy–is the depth of darkness and shadow the film is imbued with: moments of bright day time exist, but deep black shadows or bleakly twilit moments compose the vast majority of it. Deviating from this shared sensibility, the characters are more clearly drawn in their dimensions, even trading off responsibility for voice-over narration that provides a kind of insight that performance alone would not illustrate in the same way, no matter how skilled. Ventura is the most striking example of this, in a scene late in the film that emphasizes an internal struggle that we can certainly see in him, but that is aided by the type of thought and choice of words that Gerbier is associating with the events he’s experiencing. Françoise Bonnot deserves some sincere credit for her role in editing so effectively, managing the scenes of Melville’s restrained characters and visceral action, centered less on “action“, and more on the response of characters to the adrenaline-inducing events.
It seems this is now sometimes regarded as Melville’s magnum opus–and so it indeed may be. This is an espionage film, a war film, a movie about acting in those roles that has no universal condemnations or over-broad themes to assault the audience with, but a sense of grim duty, and the aspects of that duty–particularly the, well, grim aspects–which are clouded and not necessarily so much amdirable as inevitable.