With the avowed love from filmmakers like Johnnie To, John Woo, Paul Thomas Anderson and Quentin Tarantino, the work of Jean-Pierre Melville went from being curiosities to masterpieces. But such is what happens when a great artist’s works are rarely shown or released stateside. It wasn’t until around 1997 that Le Samouraï was re-appraised with a theatrical re-release. Since then a number of his films have been reissued. Because his masterwork 1969’s Army of Shadows was never officially released stateside, when it received reissue in 2006, the 37-year-old picture was named by many critics as the best film of the year. Ironically the film was mostly panned in France when it was released. Now it’s assessed to be one of the finest achievements in French cinema. Sands of time. Lino Ventura, Jean-Pierre Cassel, and Simone Signoret play members of the French resistance in this classic, and our review of Army of Shadows follows after the jump.
Army of Shadows indelibly opens with a shot of the German Army marching on the Champs-élysées in front of the Arc de Triomphe, setting the tone for the film to come (it was regarded by Melville as one of his two favorite shots in his career). As the credits play out, Resistance member Phillipe Gerbier (Lino Ventura) is being sent to a French-run prison. There he is treated as a normal prisoner until his real identity as an underground mastermind is discovered. He’s then shipped off to Germany, where he makes an amazing escape, returning to France to confront the man who betrayed him. With the help of a crew of Resistance fighters, the man responsible is choked to death (of all the violence in the film, sequences of the Resistance killing their own are the most shocking).
Shortly thereafter, the main players are introduced: Mathilde (Simone Signoret), the female member and the most adept at deception; newcomer Jean Francois (Jean-Pierre Cassel), who chickens out of the Resistance to no greater avail; and his brother “Saint” Luc Jardie (Paul Meurisse), the leader of their operations – though both brothers are unaware of their roles. As they fight against the occupation, eventually Phillipe is captured, but he escapes due to a miraculous ploy by Mathilde. Nonetheless, the war rages on, and the fighters are destined to keep battling impossible odds until their luck runs out.
Fatalism has always been cinematically fashionable – there’s no better way for to give superficial meanings to art than by dashing all hope. At this point, it’s a cliché – it usually comes across as an affectation, but here the sense of hopelessness comes across as authentic. It is not without a sense of irony then that Melville had numerous affectations, but he was overtly conscious of striking a pose. From his public uniform of a Stetson, sunglasses, and trench-coat – a uniform often transposed onto his main characters – to the name “Melville,” which he changed (from Grumbach) out of appreciation for the American novelist and to downplay his Jewish heritage. But what was authentic was his experiences during the World War II: Melville fought with the French Resistance, doing his part to undermine the Nazi occupation of France. This first-hand knowledge of death, seemingly lurking around every corner, informed his films noir — most famously Le Samouraï and Le Cercle Rouge — and it’s given perfect illumination in Army of Shadows, which stands as — if not his finest achievement then — Melville’s summation of his wartime experiences.
For Melville there was purpose: The French Resistance has been romanticized as long as there have been films about the Nazis (Casablanca being the best example) for the very reason that there is something attractive and understandable about their struggle. But for Melville, who lived it, the only real treatment of the subject matter was Joseph Kessel’s 1943 novel of the same name. He thought so at the time of the book came out, and spent 25 years trying to get it made. Alas, upon release, the film was looked at as sympathetic to President Charles de Gaulle (a leader out of favor at the time), which poisoned the film in the minds of the Cahiers du Cinéma critics and French audiences. Such meant that it was not officially released in the United States until 2006, and it spent much of the intervening years lost and forgotten. But, with the re-appraisal of Melville’s work and the fandom of Tarantino and Woo, in 2004 a restoration was done in France and the film is now rightly regaled. We are very lucky this happened.
The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray release of Army of Shadows is a copy of their two disc DVD release, but it’s still one of my favorites of theirs. The feature is presented in widescreen (1.85:1) with Dolby Digital 2.0 surround audio, along with the original monaural soundtrack. The film comes with a commentary by Melville historian Ginette Vincendeau. The regular supplements kick off with an archive excerpt from the television show “Chroniques de France” called “Jean-Pierre Melville, Filmmaker” (4 min.). It’s followed by a 2006 interview with director of photography in the piece, “Pierre Lhomme: Revisiting a Masterpiece” (14 min.), who speaks proudly of the film and his experience. Also included in this section is a restoration demonstration (7 min.) and a stills gallery of color tests.
Also newer is and interview with editor Francoise Bonnot (11 min.), who offers numerous insights, partly because she grew up with Melville (her mother was Melville’s original editor up until Le Samourai). “L’Invite Du Dimanche” (30 min.) offers vintage interviews with Melville, stars Jean-Pierre Cassel, Paul Cruchet, Paul Meurisse, and Simone Signoret, author of the source material Joseph Kessel, and real Resistance figure Andre Dewavrim (a.k.a. “Colonel Passy”), who plays himself in the film. For the StudioCanal-produced documentary “Melville Et ‘Le Armée Des Ombres'” Cassel, Bonnot, Llhomme, composer Eric Dermasan, and filmmakers Phillipe Labro and Bertrand Tavernier offer insights into the director and the film. Then, in the section “The Resistance” there’s the documentary “Le Journal De La Resistance” (33 min.), which consists of footage filmed during the final French insurrection in German-occupied Paris, the collapse of the German troops, and the subsequent celebration — all narrated by Noel Coward. “Simone Signoret and Lucie Aubrac” (5 min.) is an excerpt that speaks to Aubrac’s role in the Resistance, and Signoret’s approach to the role, and “Ouvrez Les Guillemets” (23 min.) offers interviews with Resistance fighters. Rounding out the set are the film’s original and re-release trailers.