Saturday, March 05, 2011

EUFF ’11: Army of Crime

The French love of liberty was so great they had to outsource freedom fighting. Those willing to do the dirty work the French just would not do were primarily immigrants from Eastern Europe, Italy, and Spain. They were also largely Communists. At least, that is the portrait of Vichy-era France not surprisingly painted by Robert Guédiguian, the French-Armenian Communist filmmaker, in Army of Crime (trailer here), which screens tomorrow as part of the 14th Annual European Union Film Festival in Chicago.

Missak Manouchian was a lover and a poet, not a fighter. However, he became the celebrated leader of a French resistance cell. A committed partisan, Manouchian sees strong parallels between the Armenian genocide that killed his family and the reports of German concentration camps just starting to reach France. No stranger to Vichy prisons, Manouchian is fortunate to be at liberty. However, the dogged anti-Communist Inspector Pujol has a potential informant who, though somewhat removed from the action, could jeopardize the entire Manouchian Group.

As hagiography told in flashback form, it is only too clear how Crime will end. One cannot have a saint without the requisite martyrdom. Still, Guédiguian stages several tense operations with a genuine eye for the cinematic. Ironically, Crime’s best scene involves an aborted operation and the resulting mad scramble for a grenade pin.

However, Guédiguian’s screenplay, co-written with Serge Le Péron and Gilles Taurand, is structurally problematic. Rather than building up the suspense of the Manouchian Group’s final mission, the assassination of the odious General Julius Ritter, Crime shows it relatively briefly and matter-of-factly. Likewise, there is no real suspense during the final round-up. As a result, the extended twenty minute endgame somewhat diminishes the power of the intended emotional crescendo.

As history, Crime is also a rather so-so affair. There is a mumbled mention of the Molotov-Ribbentrop treaty between Hitler and Stalin, but the fact that French Communists were under strict orders from Moscow to collaborate during the first year of the German occupation is scrupulously ignored.

Frankly, Guédiguian is most successful humanizing Manouchian. Indeed, Simon Abkarian’s performance is shrewdly restrained and nuanced, suggesting a sensitive soul, happier quoting poetry than Marxist dialectics. In the quiet moments allowed by Guédiguian, he also develops some pleasant chemistry with Virginie Leyden as Manouchian’s wife Mélinée.

Crime’s title explicitly references the notorious Vichy propaganda poster that labeled Manouchian’s group an “Army of Crime.” It also clearly seeks to establish a kinship with Jean-Pierre Melville’s dark resistance-era masterpiece The Army of Shadows. While it certainly accomplishes the former, it falls well short of the latter. A decent (if a tad overlong) WWII drama, Crime pales in comparison to Melville and even contemporary films like Max Manus and the upcoming Winter in Wartime. It screens tomorrow afternoon (3/6) and Wednesday (3/9) during the 2011 EUFF at Chicago’s Siskel Film Center. Viewers can also stream Crime on Netflix.