Army of Shadows

Army of Shadows

Format: Blu-ray

Release date: 8 April 2013

Distributor: Studiocanal

Director: Jean-Pierre Melville

Writer: Jean-Pierre Melville

Based on the novel by: Joseph Kessel

Cast: Lino Ventura, Simone Signoret, Paul Meurisse, Jean-Pierre Cassel

Original Title: L’armée des ombres

France 1969

145 mins

The sound of marching feet. The now familiar sight of German soldiers trooping through the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, marking their own triumphant seizure of the city, and symbolically, of France as a whole. From the opening shots through to its tragic end, Jean-Pierre Melville’s classic Army of Shadows about the French Resistance is so full of influential, iconic imagery that, watching the film more than 40 years after its original release in 1969, it’s difficult to shake the feeling of déjà vu.

A key figure in the Resistance, Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura) is interned, without charge, in a prison camp. His jailers aren’t German, but French (the first of many critiques of collaborationists, and subtly, of the French as a whole). He soon escapes and finds his way to Marseilles, where, with two trusted colleagues, Le Masque (Claude Mann) and Le Bison (Christian Barbier), justice is meted out in brutal fashion to the person who betrayed him. Now a known and wanted man, Gerbier’s survival takes on new prominence, with the film twisting its way through a series of arrests of both Gerbier and his helpers and the subsequent, dangerous attempts at their rescue.

For the three comrades are part of the handful of men and one formidable woman (with her one, fatal flaw) who form the cell at the heart of the film, which was based on Joseph Kessel’s 1943 novel of the same name and influenced by Melville’s own war-time experiences. Devoted members of the Resistance, they are isolated figures, alone in the sacrifices they make to protect each other and in their efforts to subvert the Germans. Their strength lies in their convictions and unswerving devotion to the cell; Gerbier almost worships Luc Jardie (Paul Meurisse), a philosopher, writer and their leader.

There is little romanticism in the portrayal of their actions, no bending of history to make the Resistance seem somehow glamorous. Melville’s Army of Shadows is an austere film, shot in steely grey and blue tones, in an almost minimalist style. The languorous, late-60s pacing succeeds in creating an almost real-time sense of suspense. When Mathilde (terrifically played by Simone Signoret), disguised as a nurse, tries to enter the jail where another comrade has been kept prisoner and nearly tortured to death, the seconds crawl by as she waits for her papers to be approved by the guards. Melville creates the feeling of nervous energy and fear that anyone would feel in those tense moments, unsure if they’re about to be exposed as agents, and knowing the horrific reality of what would happen if they were. And by the film’s unhappy conclusion, the members of the cell have all been humiliated, tormented and sadistically toyed with by the Germans in what, in those years, was an almost futile battle.

With its strong political undertones, Army of Shadows was doomed to failure on its original release and denounced, in part, for being Gaullist – it was released shortly after the May 68 protests and the backlash against de Gaulle. Thanks to the controversy that surrounded the film, it was never released for distribution in the United States until it appeared on DVD in 2006. Now widely regarded as a masterpiece, its reissue on Blu-ray is a welcome opportunity to rediscover this compelling and important film.

Sarah Cronin