Reportedly, French critics were scandalized by Jean-Pierre Melville’s Army of Shadows on its initial release, finding its depiction of General De Gaulle far too heroic. However, it is hard to think of a film less inclined to the critical bugbear of “jingoism” than Melville’s uncompromising story of duplicity and intrigue within the French resistance. In a case of American reviewers and audiences rediscovering that which their French counterparts intemperately dismissed, Melville’s film was a breakout art house hit in 2006. To celebrate the New Year, Army (trailer here) has triumphantly returned to New York’s Film Forum for a special engagement now underway.
A local leader of the underground, Philippe Gerbier has been arrested by the Vichy police. It will not be the last time he is taken into custody. During the prison transfer, Gerbier pulls off a daring escape. It will not be his last either. Eventually, he rendezvouses with his comrades and sets out to execute the man who double-crossed him. This pattern too will repeat.
In a way, there is something peculiarly French and appropriately existential about Army. There is an unspoken sense that betrayal will mark the ultimate end of all the resistance fighters. The only question is whether they will be forced to inform on their colleagues or be informed upon. Victory is only measured by the time they continue to act as free agents in the covert battle. As result, Army manages to be simultaneous cynical and idealistic, forgiving the sins it so ruthlessly exposes.
The picture of world-weariness, Lino Ventura is lynchpin of the film. It is hard to think of a more compelling yet quietly understated screen performance. Of course, he has strong support, including the great Simone Signoret perfectly conveying the complexities and nuances of a key member of his cell. Though little more than a cameo role, Serge Reggiani is also unforgettable as a patriotic barber.
It is a convenient myth that nearly all the French were actively involved in the resistance. Army acts as an unambiguous corrective to such romanticism, as does Melville’s Léon Morin, Priest. Yet, it also suggests that many of the French still did the best they could under impossible circumstances. A film of uncommon depth that is also enormously entertaining, Army is easily the best film screening in New York theaters this week. It runs at Film Forum through Tuesday (1/4).