Army of Shadows

Director: Jean-Pierre Melville
Screenplay: Jean-Pierre Melville (based on the novel by Joseph Kessel)
Stars: Lino Ventura (Philippe Gerbier), Paul Meurisse (Luc Jardie), Jean-Pierre Cassel (Jean François Jardie), Simone Signoret (Mathilde), Claude Mann (Claude Le Masque), Paul Crauchet (Felix), Christian Barbier (Le Bison), Serge Reggiani (The hairdresser), André Dewavrin (Colonel Pass), Alain Dekok (Legrain), Alain Mottet (Commander of the camp), Alain Libolt (Paul Dounat), Jean-Marie Robain (Baron de Ferte Talloire), Albert Michel (Gendarm
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1969
Country: France
Army of Shadows Criterion Collection Blu-ray
Army of Shadows

Disparaged by French critics during in its initial run in 1969, Jean-Pierre Melville’s Army of Shadows (L’Armée des ombres) has enjoyed a critical re-evaluation in recent years, culminating 15 years ago in a restoration of the original negative and its first theatrical release in the United States, 37 years after its was made and 33 years after the death of its auteur, whose fierce independence and stylistic innovation earned him the title “Godfather of the French New Wave.” As its title implies, Army of Shadows is a haunting, elegiac portrait of the French Resistance during World War II that is neither celebratory (as it was originally criticized for being) nor cynical. Rather, Melville works in the moral gray zone between the necessary and the unthinkable, focusing on characters who are forced to make agonizing choices at a time when it seemed the whole world was collapsing.

Melville’s opening image, which establishes the film’s tragic scope, would have been a shocker in 1969, and it still retains sublime power today: a line of German soldiers goose-stepping past the Arc de Triomphe and then turning down the famed Champs-Élysée straight into the camera. This visual metonym for the military and moral fall of France had, surprisingly enough, never been recreated for a French film before Melville dared to open Army of Shadows with it, and it carries a charge of melancholy that persists throughout the film.

The narrative begins in 1942, well after much of France had fallen to the Nazis and when the Resistance movement was still small and fractured. Melville’s screenplay, which is based on the 1943 fact-based novel by Resistance fighter Joseph Kessel, splits its focus among several Resistance fighters, thus maintaining the novel’s multiple-interior-monologue structure. As a result, there is no one protagonist, although we come close with Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura), a well-educated, practical, and sometimes ruthless civil engineer who heads a small cell of Resistance fighters. Crucially, when we first meet Gerbier, he has been captured and is being transported to a Vichy prison camp. Thus, the threat of capture and death hangs over the characters from the film’s opening moments, reminding us that this is not an escapist fantasy of action theatrics, but rather a morality play about desperation and fatalism.

Other members of Gerbier’s cell include Félix (Paul Crauchet), Le Bison (Christian Barbier), and Le Masque (Claude Mann). They gain a new recruit in Jean-François Jardie (Jean-Pierre Cassel), whose older brother, Luc Jardie (Paul Meurisse), is the head of the Resistance. The other crucial character is a rarity for Melville’s typically testosterone-heavy universe: Mathilde (Simone Signoret), a steely woman of intense bravery who nonetheless has a crucial weakness that brings the film to its tragic climax.

Throughout Army of Shadows each of these characters has moments that could be conventionally defined as “heroism,” but Melville presents them in a matter-of-fact manner that emphasizes simple humanity, rather than inflated gallantry. He also infuses the film with moments of black humor, such as the scene in which Gerbier must return immediately to France from London, where he has been recruiting aid from the British, and is forced to parachute into a war zone despite never having done so. His slightly comical reluctance to make the final leap is a welcome touch of humor, but it is also testament to the fact that even the most hardened of warriors have moments of doubt and weakness.

Although there is little conventional action in Army of Shadows—much of the film focuses on the details of process and planning, rather than the excitement of execution—when Melville employs violence, he does it with a hard edge that denies easy thrills. The film’s most brutal scene depicts Gerbier, Félix, Le Bison, and Le Masque executing a young man who has given up secrets to the Germans. While the scene is a foreshadowing of more difficult choices yet to come, it also functions as one of cinema’s most unrelenting depictions of what is involved in taking another person’s life. Unable to use a gun because neighbors might hear, the Resistance fighters calmly debate how to execute the young traitor right in front of him, eventually deciding on a towel as a method of strangulation. In some ways, it feels like the kind of brutal dark comedy one might find in a Hitchcock film, but it also works to remind us that these Resistance fighters are desperate men who will, if necessary, employ brutally violent tactics to ensure their own survival and, by proxy, the survival of France. Heroism, Melville shows, is a deeply complicated affair.

Beyond its thematic underpinnings, Army of Shadows is a visual tour de force, melding Melville’s traditional use of black-and-white aesthetics with a desaturated color palette that immediately produces a sense of despair and longing. The cinematography by Pierre Lhomme (who also oversaw the film’s restoration) is simple, but fiercely engaging; this not a film of elaborate camera movements, but rather of strong, classical compositions that beg for an intense gaze. It is almost as though Melville is daring you to look away, which is why he never moves the camera in the opening shot as the Germans march right toward us. Army of Shadows is a film that tests your nerves and your will, which is why it is such a fitting portrait of men and women risking their lives for a pursuit they may very well never live to see successful.

Army of Shadows Criterion Collection Blu-ray

Aspect Ratio1.85:1
  • French Linear PCM 1.0 monaural
  • French DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo
  • SubtitlesEnglish
  • Audio commentary by film historian Ginette Vincendeau
  • Video interview with cinematographer Pierre Lhomme
  • Video interview with editor Françoise Bonnot
  • News segment on Melville from a 1968 episode of Chroniques de France
  • Excerpts from a 1969 episode L’invité du dimanche about Melville
  • Jean-Pierre Melville et “L’Armée des ombres” (2006) retrospective documentary
  • Le journal de la Résistance (1944), short documentary
  • Interview with Simon Signoret and Lucie Aubrac from Libération, liberation: Le ciné,a de l’ombre (1984)
  • Interviews with Resistance fighters from a 1973 episode of Ouvrez les guillemets
  • Film restoration demonstration and gallery of color test photos
  • Original and re-released theatrical trailers
  • Insert booklet featuring critic Amy Taubin, historian Robert Paxton, and excerpts from Rui Nogueira’s Melville on Melville
  • Distributor?????
    Release DateApril 7, 2020

    This is actually the second Criterion Blu-ray release of Army of Shadows, the first being back in 2011 (the original DVD release was in 2007, shortly after the restoration had a theatrical run). The image on this disc is a new transfer supervised by Pierre LHomme, the film’s cinematographer, who also supervised the restoration 15 years ago, and it looks fantastic. In keeping with Jean-Pierre Melville’s visual style, the film is so monochromatic as to be virtually black and white, with cool blues and grays dominating the color palette and a complete absence of warm hues. Melville also liked to shoot very dark, and the transfer is exceptionally good at bringing out the details in even the densest shadows and murkiest nighttime scenes. There isn’t a great deal of different in the image here and the one on the 2011 Blu-ray except that the color palette appears to be a shade warmer overall (which you see most in the skin tones). The digitally restored monaural soundtrack was transferred at 24-bit from the 35mm magnetic tracks, and it sounds excellent throughout. There is also an optional remixed stereo soundtrack that provides a bit more spaciousness in the sound field. Either way, Eric Demarsan’s minimalist, but haunting score has never sounded better.

    All of the supplements from the previous discs are included, starting with an excellent screen-specific audio commentary from 2006 by prolific film historian and frequent Criterion collaborator Ginette Vincendeau, author of Jean-Pierre Melville: An American in Paris. Vincendeau provides a substantial amount of historical and production information, which makes the film truly come alive, especially for those who are not experts in the history of World War II and the French Resistance.

    There are also two 2006 video interviews, one with cinematographer Pierre LHomme (14 min.) and the other with editor Françoise Bonnot (10 min.). In the fascinating interview with LHomme, he discusses the peculiarities of working with Melville, including the famed director’s hatred of warm colors and his love of using low-budget amateur tricks (such as blowing up photographs to use as backdrops) even on a big-budget film. Bonnot, who speaks perfect English, has particularly interesting insight into Melville because she had known him since she was a child (her mother, Monique Bonnot, worked as an editor on virtually all of his films). There is also a 2005 half-hour retrospective documentary about the film titled Jean-Pierre Melville et “L’armée des ombres”; it features interviews with Bonnot, LHomme, actors Jean-Pierre Cassel, composer Eric Demarsan, and filmmakers Philippe Labro and Bertrand Tavernier.

    From the archives we have a news segment from a 1968 episode of the French television show Chroniques de France about Melville’s work on Army of Shadows. Although less than five minutes in length, it includes an interview with Melville and quite a bit of footage of him working on the film (seeing Meville, always dressed in a suit, Stetson hat, and aviator sunglasses, commanding a set is endlessly enjoyable). If that’s not enough, there is also half an hour of scratchy, grainy excerpts from a March 1969 episode of the French TV program L’invité du dimanche about Melville. It includes plenty of on-set footage and interviews with Melville and most of the film’s cast, as well as novelist Joseph Kessel and real-life Resistance fighter André Dewavrin (aka “Colonel Passy”), who appears in the film as himself. (All of these television shows dedicated to the film in 1968 and 1969 are reminders of just how highly anticipated it was.)

    A special section of the disc focuses on the Resistance, starting with Le journal de la Résistance, a rather amazing and rarely seen 33-minute documentary from 1944 that captures the final French insurrection against the Germans in August 1944 and the Nazis’ subsequent surrender (the English narration is by British playwright Noël Coward). The film is composed entirely of actual footage of the events, some shot on the streets and some shot from windows high above. There are also five minutes of excerpts from the 1984 French program Libération, liberation: Le ciné,a de l’ombre, which features interviews with actress Simon Signoret and Lucie Aubrac, the woman on whom her character is partially based. And, finally, there are 23 minutes of excerpts from a 1973 episode of the French program Ouvrez les guillemets, which features interviews with several members of the French Resistance.

    As mentioned earlier, the negative of Army of Shadows was recently restored, and this disc includes a seven-minute restoration demonstration showing how 140 lost frames from the opening shot were repaired, color correction during the opening credits, the repairing of a torn frame during the opening car sequence, correcting a mis-matched cut during the Gestapo sequence, and the removal of dirt and scratches from the end credits. There is also a gallery of color test photos shot during the film’s production.

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    Overall Rating: (4)

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