In these troubled times, should we speak of “Army of Shadows”, this cinematographic masterpiece by Jean-Pierre Melville, which dates back to 1967?
Yes, a thousand times yes.
For once, let’s talk politics. Oups, sorry: let’s talk about values.
In France, Josephine Baker the resistant was pantheonized on the same day as the presidential candidacy of a far-right candidate who, superbly ignoring historians, surfs on a stinking revisionism making Philippe Pétain the savior of French Jews.
I can tell you that hearing on the same day the Partisans’ Song (the anthem of the Resistance fighters) accompanying the luminous Josephine AND the revisionist speech of a small-footed Trump felt like an awful emotional rollercoaster to me.
That’s why it’s so important to talk about “Army of Shadows”, this cinematic monument dedicated to the French Resistance. “Army of Shadows” is a troubled and troubling movie because it is an honest illustration of life, its difficulty and complexity.
There is no hero in “Army of Shadows”.
There is no spectacular action saving humanity in “Army of Shadows”.
“Army of Shadows” is nothing else than a reflection of reality and the dirty compromises that human beings sometimes have to make in order to make their opinions or values prevail, without glory or trumpet. The film, which is often slow, which plays on stares and silences, is perhaps depressing but it remains a punch in the face.
Let’s talk about Jean-Pierre Melville first. Resistant during WWII, he adapts right after the war an adaptation of the “Silence of the Sea” by Vercors, which is as such a amazing book.
Why incredible? Because Vercors, in all his subtlety, perfectly captures the gray areas: in the “Silence of the Sea”, it’s never about montruous Germans occupying France. These are often educated Germans, brought up with the idea of a perfect union and transcendence between a strong Germany and a beloved France, like the ideal of a union between Earth and Heaven. In all his human intelligence, Vercors never presents the occupying German as the bad guy, he presents this one as a person who has been sold a dream that is just a decoy. And the conclusion of the “Silence of the Sea” is ultimately very simple: if the educated German has been cheated by his dictator, beware, French people: do not fall into this lure, do not collaborate.
Melville, I believe, fully understood the gray areas mentioned by Vercors. He lived in these gray areas, as a Resistance fighter. He perfectly knows that humans are neither all bad nor all good. He also knows that the noblest causes often require dirty deeds, and that Hell is sometimes paved with good intentions. He knows the grey areas, because Resistance is certainly not a series of incredible, heroic and memorable actions and that the most complex is quite simply to stay alive day after day.
Which brings us back to the movie “Army of Shadows”.
It is an adaptation of the book that Joseph Kessel wrote on the basis of testimonies from French Resistance fighters, published in 1943 (the lyrics of the Partisans’ Song were written the same year by Joseph Kessel – the circle is complete, my luminous Josephine).
“Army of Shadows” opens with the Nazi army parade on the Champs-Elysées.
Philippe Gerbier (embodied by Lino Ventura) is perhaps a respected engineer but he also leads a movement of Resistance fighters on behalf of the secretive “Patron” (Paul Meurisse, who embodies a published and recognized philosopher but who is also a strong and placid Resistance leader).
Philippe Gerbier, arrested for Gaullist sympathies, is taken to a prison camp. He manages to escape from the Majestic hotel in Paris where the Gestapo took him. His escape is made possible thanks to the help of another patriot whom we do not know if Gerbier wants to save him or sacrifice him to create a diversion, and a hairdresser who looks at first glance as a collaborator but who nevertheless actively helps him.
The traitor who denounced Philippe Gerbier having been identified, he is murdered by the Resistance movement in Marseille during an horrifying strangulation session, during which humanity and inhumanity mingle in a totally absurd and disturbing way.
Philippe Gerbier’s network is made up of loyal men such as Félix (played by Paul Crauchet), Le Masque (played by Claude Mann) and Le Bison (worn by Christian Barbier) but new patriots will soon join, as Jean-François – a young idealist with a taste for risk (played by Jean-Pierre Cassel and who can only arouse tenderness and admiration) and Mathilde (the royal Simone Signoret), the housewife who goes under the radar and who resists unbeknownst to her daughter with whom, one can imagine, she lives.
Unfortunately, Félix is arrested and tortured by the Nazis in Lyon and even the risky rescue operation organized by Mathilde, even Jean-François’ sacrificial gesture, may not save him. When it is Philippe Gerbier, who has been arrested again, who has to be be saved, Mathilde is still busy organizing a rescue operation which nearly fails.
We must stop for a few moments to evoke three scenes which take place during this second captivity of Philippe Gerbier – and which follow one another.
The first scene captures the despair written on each of the faces of the prisoners, including Gerbier. A deadly silence accompanies the movement of the camera which stops on the face of each of these men devoured by the anguish of their imminent death and who share the last cigarette of the condemned ones.
The second scene sees the march of the prisoners towards the death corridor. This walk is accompanied by the highly distressing music of Morton Gould. Happy and unhappy memories come to the mind of Gerbier, who tries to convince himself that he cannot die if he rejects the very idea of death (which nevertheless opens the question of knowing whether all the rest of the film is real or a fantasized vision of a dying Gerbier).
The third scene takes place in the long corridor of a shooting range, where the German officers orchestrate a cruel game: the prisoners have to run to reach the end of the shooting range and avoid the bullets fired at them in the back, in order to see their death postponed. In this scene, cruelty, dignity and survival instinct inextricably come together. Philippe Gerbier, who initially refuses to run to preserve his dignity, will ultimately be saved by his survival instinct – and by Mathilde.
Later hidden for a few weeks in a gloomy hideout, Philippe Gerbier receives a visit from the “Patron” who tells him that Mathilde was arrested and then inexplicably released after a few days. Members of the Resistance movement having been arrested in the wake, the “Patron” fears that the Gestapo forced Mathilde to collaborate by making her fear heavy reprisals against her daughter. The “Patron” placidly suggests the murder of Mathilde, in order to free her from the probable blackmail that the Gestapo exercises on her and her daughter. He even manages to persuade Philippe Gerbier that it is exactly this deliverance that Mathilde is waiting for.
As you can imagine, there is no happy ending – and the last movie shot, accompanied by the poignant music of Eric Demarsan, goes from Avenue Hoche to this Arc de Triomphe where it all began.
The daily life of these people, finally like you, like me, embroiled in the torments of a terrible History and who decide at all costs to live out their opinions and their values, ultimately comes down to operations of cover-up and pure survival. It’s never about heroism or a grand spectacle. They are on borrowed time, they perfectly know it and that is why the shadows of the film’s title certainly evoke the clandestinity of their daily life, but also their funeral march as survivors and zombies.
Let’s talk about some important points of the film:
The film opens with a Nazi parade on the Champs-Elysées. Melville went out of his way to get permission to film this traumatic scene because it was ultra-realistic (with dancers, because they were, according to him, capable of reproducing the footsteps of the German soldiers in parade) and he filmed at dawn so as not to disturb anyone. As I mentioned above, it all begins and ends with the Arc de Triomphe (I have already spoken here of the national symbol that the Arc de Triomphe represents) and it’s interesting to know that Melville did not stopped moving this key scene during editing (he even toured Paris theaters on the film’s first day of operation, in order to finally set the scene at the start of the film).
At other times, amateurism is enough for him (I am thinking of some painted canvases in the background). Or the anachronisms hardly bother him (I think, in the last scene, of this building in the background, that I know so well, at the corner of rue de Courcelles and avenue Hoche, which dates from the 60’s).
This mixture of great realism and amateurism is hardly embarrassing, because the spectator perfectly understands where Jean-Pierre Melville wants to focus his efforts and make a big impression.
Melville plays with a few strong, masterful, striking scenes, focused on faces, looks, silence and loneliness. It is often brotherhood and loyalty that allow the protagonists to escape this deadly loneliness (temporarily, at least).
Let’s also talk about the colors of “Army of Shadows”: cold, refrigerated, they are all black, blue and gray (the grays have been the subject of meticulous work and almost manage to give an idea of what metallic color is). The faces are ashy, pale, cadaverous – and this is evident in the scene of the prisoners’ last cigarette. These colors perfectly illustrate the harshness, the loneliness, the difficulty of the context in which the protagonists have to, willingly or by force, survive. Because ultimately, the victims and the torturers use the same methods and are confronted with the same horrors. All are on borrowed time and evolve out of life.
The film, even though it is locked between two dates (which ultimately could have been other dates of the Occupation period) is decontextualized, depersonalized – like a bad dream. We indifferently go from Paris to Marseille to Lyon with no explanation.
Likewise, nothing is known about the protagonists, their identities, their motivations, their personal stories. The methods used by the Resistance fighters are not further explained. We just understand that these men and women, who are reduced to shadows because they are clandestine – but also because they are the shadows of themselves – trying above all to survive, even above setting up offensive operations against their enemies.
Unlike Joseph Kessel’s novel, Jean-Pierre Melville’s minimalist film presents a gallery of cold, inexpressive, almost interchangeable people who have willingly gave up their humanity. They are isolated, out of the world and certainly not in the world of the living ones. Philippe Gerbier is perhaps the coldest of them, and the only love he allows himself is his love for the “Patron” – that is to say the love of hierarchy and organization. Lino Ventura is a perfection of cold anger, suppressed rage – he is monolithic.
The “Patron” – Luc Jardie – embodies the well-known Jean Moulin and Jean Cavailles, a French epistemologist whose book titles are also used in the film.
Simone Signoret, for the record, had Lucie Aubrac as a teacher before WWII.
This poignant film brings us each back to our loneliness, our struggles whether big or small, to our human perfectibility. One can strive for the absolute and not achieve it every time – but at least one has to try.
February 4, 2022
Vintage dress – Vintage hat from Marcel et Jeannette – Dior heels and handbag – Marni coat