Tuesday, November 20, 2018

The Unheroic French Resistance in Jean-Pierre Melville's "Army of Shadows"

Army of Shadows (1969) is a stylish film by Jean-Pierre Melville about a group of French Resistance fighters.  As always, Melville proves to be a meticulous and self-assured director.  As always, he shows a mastery at building tension in scenes.  But I was never fully engaged in the film.  I just didn't get it.  One would imagine a film about the French Resistance featuring a group of heroic characters embroiled in a campaign to blow up a bridge along a German supply route.  But Army of Shadows is more like a gangster film about rival criminals involved in bloody intrigue to eliminate (or "rub out") one another.  Melville normally directed gangster films.  The film's star, Lino Ventura, normally played gangsters.  It was business as usual for them. The Resistance simply represents a different sort of underworld.

The film would have been more compelling if it centered on the preparation of a mission to be enacted at the film's climax.  But, instead, the Resistance fighters are stuck in a pointless loop of capture, escape, betrayal, retribution, and execution.  The Gestapo's main goal whenever they apprehend a Resistance fighter is to get the person to give up the names of other Resistance fighters. They are very effective at this.  They will torture the person relentlessly or they will threaten to torture a loved one of the person.  The captive will either break eventually or die.  The Resistance fighter's cohorts have to act quickly to free the person or kill them before they talk. One by one, the resistance fighters are executed by the Gestapo or (worse) by their own people, and the filmmaker never bothers to show these men and women ever accomplishing something to make all of the death and mayhem worthwhile.  Can't they just blow up one little bridge? The film is, in the end, grim and hopeless.  Melville didn't mind that people like me didn't understand his films.  He said, "I'd like viewers to come away from my films unsure whether they've understood them."

Similar matters are depicted in a more clear-cut and conventional manner in a recent film, The Resistance Banker (2018), which involves the efforts of the Dutch Resistance during World War II.  Melville's odder film is ultimately unsatisfying, but it does manages to be more gripping than The Resistance Banker in its best scenes.

Early in the film, Ventura and another man are taken to the Gestapo's Paris headquarters for questioning. They are guarded by a skinny, youthful soldier who looks like he'd much rather be doing anything other than marching around with a gun or watching over war prisoners. The soldier never looks at his prisoners. He never says a word. Suddenly, the brutish, sullen Ventura springs out out of his chair, grabs a knife from the soldier's belt, and stabs the young man in the neck. The innocent-looking soldier with the baby face is far more sympathetic as he lays bleeding to death on the floor than the thuggish Resistance fighter who is miraculously making his getaway in the hail of machine-gun fire. Does Melville want the audience to sympathize with Ventura?  It doesn't seem that way.

Melville might not have had a great love for the French Resistance as his older brother Jacques, who dedicated himself to the Resistance, was murdered by his own cohorts while guiding a convoy of refugees to England.  His murderer was put on trial after the war.  Adrien Bosc of Tablet wrote:
At the Ariège courthouse, he explained that he had acted so as not to endanger the rest of the convoy.  Overcome with exhaustion, Jacques Grumbach had to be left behind, and he could have betrayed his companions.  "I acted on orders, I killed M. Grumbach to save the others," said the passeur.  However, he was unable to explain the disappearance of 7,000 francs from the knapsack Jacques Grumbach was carrying, though he claimed without proof that the money was subsequently given to his bosses. The corpse robber was acquitted by the Ariège Court, the jury considering that it was impossible to judge his actions with certainty.

A similar type of murder occurs in Melville's Un Flic (1972).  A bank robbery goes wrong when a cashier suddenly pulls out a gun and shoots one of the robbers, Albouis (André Pousse).  The robbers kill the cashier and flee with their gravely injured accomplice.

It is decided that, to avoid detection, they need to deposit Albouis at a private medical clinic.  Albouis remains a concern for the gang leader, Simon (Richard Crenna).  Rather than take a chance that the police will find Albois, Simon has his girlfriend Cathy (Catherine Deneuve) sneak into the clinic dressed as a nurse and murder the helpless man in his bed.

The murder of his brother Jacques no doubt haunted Melville.  The brother had a genetic heart condition, which made the convoy's trek too strenuous for him.  Melville suffered from the same condition and knew it would eventually kill him.  Sharing a deadly genetic condition with a sibling has to bring a person closer to that sibling.  Melville died of a heart attack at the age of 55 less than a year after he completed Un Flic.
A detective is called to a murder scene in Melville's Un Flic(1972). He becomes mesmerized by the corpse, which reminds him of his own mortality.
Melville is often more focused on style and mood than stories or character.  The stoic gangsters that dominate his films reveal little about themselves. Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian wrote:
There are men in trench coats and hats and loosened ties, men bunched into cars on the way to or from a job gazing blankly straight ahead, men in nightclubs, their professionally bored expressions unaffected or even petrified more intensely by the drink, the cigarettes and the sexy dancers up on stage grinding through some quaintly choreographed routine. . . It often creates an almost Beckettian severity and sparseness.
Melville, a fatalistic filmmaker, didn't believe his characters controlled their fate.  Their struggles are, according to Alan K. Rode, "ultimately futile." A film with unknowable characters involved in pointless plots is not something that most audiences find interesting.  Nonetheless, Melville has his fans, who are able to get swept up in the style and mood of his films.  Taylor Hackford does not think it matters if his films have a message. He insisted, "They're just delightful to look at."  Kelly Reichardt spoke for many fans when she said, "He's a completely elegant filmmaker."

Reference sources

Adrien Bosc, "Double Exposure: Jean-Pierre Melville," Tablet (October 20, 2017).  https://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-arts-and-culture/247256/jean-pierre-melville-100

Peter Bradshaw, "Jean-Pierre Melville: cinematic poet of the lowlife and criminal," The Guardian (August 8, 2017).  https://www.theguardian.com/film/filmblog/2017/aug/08/jean-pierre-melville-cinematic-poet-of-the-lowlife-and-criminal.

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