Friday, August 25, 2006

Melville's Bad Memories

Army of Shadows / L'Armée des ombres
(Jean-Pierre Melville, France, 1969, 35mm, 145 mins.)

army of shadows 2.gif

"Bad memories! I welcome you are my long-lost youth."
-- Georges Courteline quote which opens Army of Shadows


Though I caught a screening almost a month ago, I've been putting off posting
a review. In fact, I was thinking about taking a pass altogether...until guilt got
the best of me. Just as it's possible to be intimidated by a person, it's possible
to be intimidated by a film -- and the reputation of its maker. I love Jean-Pierre Melville. I love this movie. There's no way I can do it justice.

I'm not alone. Author Rui Nogueira (Melville on Melville) proclaims Army of Shadows
"a masterpiece." He's joined by Manohla Dargis (The New York Times), Stephanie Zacharek (Salon), and numerous others. As such, I wouldn't want to oversell it.

After all, the film doesn't move as quickly as Melville's Le Doulos (1962), nor is it
as stylish as Le Samouraï (1967). Plus, it's even longer than the uncut Le Cercle Rouge (1970). Heck, it isn't even a gangster film. Or a war film. It's a Resistance film. Based on the 1943 novel by Joseph Kessel (best known for Belle de Jour), Melville also draws on his own Free French experience. Sure, it still looks and feels like his work, but it packs more of an emotional punch -- no make that a whallop -- than usual.

Never before released in the US, this beautifully restored version is meant to
be experienced on the big screen. The restoration was personally supervised
by César-winning cinematographer Pierre Lhomme (The Mother and the Whore,
Camille Claudel). Nonethless, some may be waiting for the inevitable DVD release.
If you have any interest in this film or this filmmaker, you really shouldn't.
In purely visual terms, Army of Shadows is Melville's darkest film. Most scenes take place at night, at dusk, and at dawn. Further, the palette consists primarily of deep blues and steely greys. Unless you're blessed with a theater-sized television screen, you'll miss crucial details. And Melville is nothing if not a detail-oriented filmmaker.
In fact, I hadn't made the connection until I read Sean Axmaker's GreenCine
review, but he was probably a big influence on the meticulous Mr. Michael Mann, whose Miami Vice is one of the year's other big dark-palette pictures. Then again,
if Mann doesn't consider Melville an influence, I would still describe him as one of
the French helmer's spiritual heirs. Both care deeply about men and their work.
And Army of Shadows, like most Melville films, is very much about men and their work. That said, there's one woman who's part of Lino Ventura's crew and that's quick-change artist Mathilde (Simone Signoret). She's just as tough as the guys,
the rest of whom are portrayed by Claude Mann, Paul Crauchet, Christian Barbier, Paul Meurisse (Diabolique's unfortunate husband), and Jean-Pierre Cassel (father
of actor Vincent "La Haine" Cassel). She's also a little more sentimental and, yes, she'll pay for that. But it isn't presented as a feminine quality -- just a quality. (Signoret's significant other, Yves Montand, was part of Le Circle Rouge's esteemed ensemble, while Ventura previously starred in Melville's Le Deuxième Souffle.)
Instead of describing the plot, which was inspired by actual events, I'll leave it
for viewers to discover on their own. I'll just note that the complex storyline continues
in the suspenseful, surprising vein of Le Cercle Rouge, while prefiguring Fred Zinneman's Day of the Jackal (1973), which I finally caught up with a few months ago. Just imagine several Jackals. Several (mostly) sympathetic Jackals. All dressed in thick overcoats and gunning for the Nazis occupying France circa 1942. In the dark.
Army of Shadows opened in Seattle on August 11th. As with most other repertory films, I figured it would be gone within the week, but two more have passed since then, so it must be attracting an audience. I'm thrilled about that as this is one
of the cinematic events of the year. It may not be perfect, which is to say the film does have its...longeurs, but the way the disparate threads come together at the
end is downright breathtaking (plus, I don't believe there's such a thing as a "perfect" film). Believe the hype: Army of Shadows is, indeed, a masterpiece.
Jean Seberg: What is your greatest ambition in life?"
Jean-Pierre Melville: To become immortal...and then die.
-- From Breathless (1960)
Rialto Pictures will re-release Le Doulos next year. They plan to follow up with
Leon Morin, Prêtre (1961), also with Jean-Paul Belmondo. Army of Shadows completes the wartime trilogy Melville began with Le Silence de La Mer (1947), which is not available on DVD, and Leon Morin. The film is currently playing at the Harvard Exit (807 East Roy). For more information, please click here or call 206-781-5755.


  1. I'm so pleased I caught this on closing night, before its gone for who knows how long! Kessel & Melville offer a perspective on the French Underground movement of the second World War different than I've seen before. I'd love to read the French reviews from the original release to see just how they took it in '69. Thanks for putting it on my radar.

  2. So glad you caught this on the big screen! Upon its original release, "Army of Shadows" did okay at the box office, but was met with mixed--occasionally hostile--reviews. Cahiers du cinéma, for example, dismissed it as "Gaullist" (you may recall that de Gaulle decorates a Resistance member in the film). It's now considered a classic, but the lukewarm reception prevented it from receiving wider distribution.

  3. For those who missed the August run of "Army of Shadows," I just noticed that it's moved downtown, so you've got a few more days to catch one of the year's best films on the big screen: Big Picture (2505 First Ave., 206-256-0572), Sat.-Thurs. at 5 and 8pm (no Wed. screenings).

  4. I am really impressed!