Army of Shadows (L’armée des ombres, 1969), Part 1: Snoopathon
Once again, I seem to have chosen the one of the least typical examples of the genre for a genre-based blogathon. “L’armée des ombres” (“Army of Shadows”), Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1969 film about a small group of French Resistance fighters during World War II, is undeniably a spy film. And yet it is strikingly unlike other examples of the genre.
Bursts of action happen only between long stretches of mostly silent waiting. The heroes make no perceptible progress against the enemy, managing little more than survival before the betrayal and death they each know is inevitable. As Roger Ebert said in his “Great Movies” review of the film, “This is not a war film. It is about a state of mind.”
As others have remarked, Melville’s film is both obviously artificial (particularly in its sets) and deeply intimate. The coexistence of what ought to be mutually exclusive characteristics is a consistent feature of Melville’s style, a feat critics have described as “difficult to explain” and “miraculous.” It gives his gangster films a kind of lived-in mythic quality, and it is an uncannily appropriate tone for a film about underground spies during an occupation. The résistants are estranged from their surroundings, and to a great extent from each other, though what they do couldn’t be more personal.
“Army of Shadows” is unmistakably Melville, but it is just as much Lino Ventura’s film. This is all the more striking given that Melville and Ventura were not on speaking terms during filming. Ventura plays Philippe Gerbier, an electrical engineer operating as a chief of sorts in the Resistance. The film opens as Gerbier is being transported to the most painfully ironic internment camp in France, having been designed by the French for the Germans. The gendarme assures Gerbier he will be “all right” there, as it is “the best in France.” Gerbier gets the most screen time, and he is also the most solid, both physically and mentally, the most reliable spy.
When Gerbier arrives at the internment camp, it seems deserted. The camp director places him in an area originally reserved for German officials—a privilege not lost on Gerbier, who tells the director he is honored. But the following morning, the camp that appeared desolate the night before is teeming with many of the groups the Nazis rounded up—Jews of all nationalities, of course, but also anti-Fascists, Communists, gypsies, and black marketers, among others. (Unsurprisingly there is no mention of, say, gay or disabled prisoners.) When someone in Gerbier’s barracks dies, Kabyle prisoners, members of a Berber ethnic group in Algeria, come to take the corpse.
Taken to the Kommandantur, Gerbier manages an unlikely escape. From then on, the spies work mostly in the dark, literally as well as figuratively. And though the title refers to the spies themselves, it might as well refer to their environment. The rooms they voluntarily inhabit are shadowy, classic Melvillian palettes of blues and greys. The sound in the film is equally narrowed and heightened. As Gerbier waits for the right moment to distract a guard at the Kommandantur, for example, we suddenly hear the relentless ticking of a clock—and little else.
A common Melvillian motif is his male characters’ chapeaux. In “Army of Shadows,” these become subtle signs that the audience learns to read with the paranoid attention of a spy. Félix (Paul Crauchet), one of Gerbier’s soldiers, wears a bowler at important moments, first when he picks up Dounat (Alain Libolt), a member of the Resistance who betrayed Gerbier to the Germans.
In order to avoid further betrayals, they of course will have to murder him. Félix hustles the doomed young man into the car and says to Gerbier, “Dirty job.” Gerbier replies, “You may dislike the hat, but you still have to wear it.” When Félix is later nabbed by the police, his bowler is knocked to the ground and left there.
Gerbier, in London for a meeting with de Gaulle, hears of Félix’s arrest. He immediately leaves for France, abandoning his own hat in the London hotel room. Wearing the hat may be the right thing to do, but it is a dirty job, and, furthermore, one that will almost certainly kill you.
The Death of the Ordinary
Everything ordinary about these previously ordinary people has been circumscribed, calling to mind Yeats’s “Easter 1916.”
All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
Smiles have been reduced to nearly imperceptible facial tics. There are few safe places; their circle of friends has dwindled to a few fellow resistance fighters, who they know may betray them under Nazi torture. (This is a film that rewards multiple viewings, especially so that you can focus on the actors rather than the subtitles.)
Indeed, sometimes action is even built around what the spies don’t know. A pair of brothers, one of whom is a Resistance leader (Paul Meurisse, astonishingly sly and completely open at the same time), never know they are working together. The younger brother, Jean-Francois (Jean-Pierre Cassel, Vincent Cassel’s father), ultimately sacrifices himself—futilely and anonymously—for a comrade, having deceived his fellow fighters in order to help them.
The most telling moment, in a film that seems full of them, might be the scene of the informant’s murder. Like many uncomfortable scenes, this one is drawn out, as the men must decide how to kill the terrified Dounat. Barely more than a boy, Dounat must listen as the men discuss possible methods. Neighbors have moved in next door, so they can’t use their guns. (“The British should have sent the silencers,” one complains.) When a knife is suggested, a new member of the group, “Le masque,” protests, “Not like that!” confessing, “It’s my first time.”
Gerbier wheels on him, horrified. “It’s our first time, too; isn’t that obvious?” One of the tragedies is that it isn’t at all obvious.
Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
The Resistance fighters have become so used to confronting such situations that, even though no one wants Dounat to die, discussing his death appears rote, emotionless. The Mask (Claude Mann) is our stand-in at this moment, our way in to understanding, as far as we can, an impossible context.
Coming up: Part 2, in which I explain why Simone Signoret is amazing in “Army in Shadows,” and some other stuff, like this: