In which I explain why Simone Signoret is amazing (and some other stuff).
Director Jean-Pierre Melville is famous for his lack of female characters, and the few women who do populate his universe frankly don’t have much character. Women are generally superfluous in Melville’s films; he is fascinated by (and makes fascinating) relationships among men.
La Magnifique Simone Signoret
So the fact that Simone Signoret’s Mathilde is crucial to “Army of Shadows” is itself an interesting aspect of the film. As much as Lino Ventura’s Gerbier grounds “Army of Shadows,” Signoret is its heart, insofar as anyone is allowed a heart in the underground world of the French Resistance. She is, as her colleagues remark, a magnificent woman—among other things, she engineers two extraordinary escapes for her comrades.
She doesn’t tart herself up (or out)…but unlike Gerbier, she has an exploitable weakness: her daughter, of whom she carries a picture. She knows she shouldn’t carry it, but she does anyway. Is it sentiment? Or is it a refusal to allow the Nazis to make her act like her daughter—who knows nothing of her mother’s Resistance work—doesn’t exist? It is this photograph that dooms her when she is (inevitably) caught by the Nazis. (True to form, the Nazis threaten not to kill Mathilde’s daughter but rather to ship her off to the front as a prostitute.)
Mathilde is released, but it is never clear whether she is buying her allies time so that they can kill her to prevent her informing on them, or if she is simply a human being protecting her child. She is somehow the steeliest and most vulnerable of the Resistance fighters.
Ebert claimed in his review that Mathilde’s greatest moment of deception is during a mission at the Kommandantura to rescue the group’s comrade Félix (Paul Crauchet). Disguised as German nurse there to transport him to the Paris Gestapo, she sees on a poster that Gerbier is wanted by the police. We watch her eyes widen and then go blank, obscuring her emotion from the Germans. And it is pretty amazing.
A few minutes later, after waiting inside the compound for the Germans to release Félix to her, a Nazi doctor informs her that it is impossible, that Félix is too close to death to travel. She simply nods, saying, “I’ll file a report.”
Most of the murders, like the torture, are offscreen. The murders of the informant Dounat (Alain Libolt) and of Mathilde are not. I wrote a bit about about Dounat’s murder in Part 1. Mathilde’s murder is its mirror image. Both victims have become dangerous to the Resistance—an informant and a future informant they can stop. Yet no one wants to kill either of them. Dounat’s murder is appallingly intimate, as Félix has to strangle him. Mathilde is shot from a short distance.
They can both see what’s coming. Dounat, a terrified young man, breaks down; Mathilde doesn’t quite have time to fully react. Her expression when “le Bison” (Christian Barbier) points his gun at her from a car window is heartbreaking, but equally unfathomable. Is she shocked? Angry? Or simply afraid of dying? Mathilde is simultaneously a cipher and utterly sympathetic. This is, if not Signoret’s greatest moment in the film, close to it.
Mathilde and Gerbier make an interesting pair. They are the two strongest fighters; they admire and care for each other. But they are quite different. Gerbier, stoical and dogged, never quite loses the aura of a man who has resigned himself to actions he can’t quite believe he’s taking, and that he suspects might be beyond his abilities.
Visually, “Army of Shadows” is a film of hallways and doorways. Hardly a scene goes by without a conspicuous doorway—open or shut, opaque or glass. Being a member of the Resistance means going through one doorway after another—usually without knowing what will happen next, whether or not this will be the room in which you are betrayed, in which you will die, or in which you will betray others.
When Gerbier is running from the police, he ducks into a barber’s. The barber appears and sets about shaving him. As he lathers Gerbier, we and Gerbier see the barber’s pro-Pétain poster. In a moment borrowed from Melville’s namesake, the barber holds Gerbier’s life in his hands as he shaves him.** We have no way of knowing if the barber is a Nazi sympathizer or if he has the poster up to avoid trouble. The barber insists on trading overcoats with Gerbier, to help him.
Clockwise from top left, Gerbier during his second imprisonment; being escorted by the police to an interrogation; Luc Jardie (Paul Meurisse) visiting Gerbier; and Jean-François returning to his apartment.
One of my favorite moments in the film is when Jean-François Jardie (Jean-Pierre Cassel) puts his hand on Félix’s shoulder in a bar filled with Nazi officers. We see Félix order a drink (straight rum? really?) at the bar. The camera is carefully placed so that the man sitting next to him at the bar is completely obscured by Félix himself.
So, when we see a man’s hand slowly placed on Félix’s shoulder, we, and surely he, feel our stomachs drop. Félix gingerly reaches into his pocket for a weapon? cyanide pills? And we realize that this is what it must be like all the time—this constant, almost subconscious waiting to be singled out and taken to your death.
The brilliance of the scene is not only in the staging, but in the fact that the hand belongs not to one of the innumerable Nazis enjoying themselves, but to a friend, someone Félix trusts. Félix looks at Jean-François for a long moment before recognizing that he isn’t a threat, and relaxing. They are so genuinely fond of each other, it is for Félix that Jean-François eventually dies, having convinced the other fighters that he has run away.
There are moments that seem unreal, and then there are details like the tape affixing Gerbier’s glasses to his face for his parachute drop back into France, and the white bobby socks and loafers Mathilde wears during a meeting with Gerbier. These contradictions between sets that seem unreal and scenes filmed in real locations, between unconvincing special effects and that tape or those socks, play a large part in creating an aura of surreality and the estrangement Resistance fighters must have felt from places and people that once seemed utterly unremarkable.
Notes: The Other Melville
** From Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno, in which a character who has led a slave revolt on a ship shaves his “master,” Benito, the putative captain of the ship, in front of someone (Captain Delano) who doesn’t know what’s going on. Benito is terrified.
“Setting down his basin, the Negro searched among the razors, as for the sharpest, and having found it, gave it an additional edge by expertly stropping it on the firm, smooth, oily skin of his open palm; he then made a gesture as if to begin, but midway stood suspended for an instant, one hand elevating the razor, the other professionally dabbling among the bubbling suds on the Spaniard’s lank neck. Not unaffected by the close sight of the gleaming steel, Don Benito nervously shuddered, his usual ghastliness was heightened by the lather, which lather, again, was intensified in its hue by the sootiness of the Negro’s body. Altogether the scene was somewhat peculiar, at least to Captain Delano, nor, as he saw the two thus postured, could he resist the vagary, that in the black he saw a headsman, and in the white, a man at the block. But this was one of those antic conceits, appearing and vanishing in a breath, from which, perhaps, the best regulated mind is not free.
Meantime the agitation of the Spaniard had a little loosened the bunting from around him, so that one broad fold swept curtain-like over the chair-arm to the floor, revealing, amid a profusion of armorial bars and ground-colours- black, blue and yellow- a closed castle in a blood-red field diagonal with a lion rampant in a white.
‘The castle and the lion,’ exclaimed Captain Delano- ‘why, Don Benito, this is the flag of Spain you use here. It’s well it’s only I, and not the King, that sees this,’ he added with a smile, ‘but’- turning toward the black,- ‘it’s all one, I suppose, so the colours be gay,’ which playful remark did not fail somewhat to tickle the Negro.
‘Now, master,’ he said, readjusting the flag, and pressing the head gently further back into the crotch of the chair; ‘now master,’ and the steel glanced nigh the throat.
Again Don Benito faintly shuddered.”