As part of the pre-celebration activities for its new exhibit Pissarro: Creating the Impressionist Landscape, the Brooks Museum of Art is showing some classic French films in October, beginning with a screening of director Jean-Pierre Melville's brilliant and deeply troubling 1969 film Army of Shadows. The Pissarro show will be impressive, but Melville's masterpiece about the French Resistance during World War II is so good that it could conceivably upstage the exhibit it's supposed to herald.
Set in the fall of 1942, Melville's loose adaptation of Joseph Kessel's novel about the French underground is a brisk epic composed of tense, drawn-out fits of action broken up by brief stretches of uncomfortable repose as it covers six months in the lives of a band of political outsiders. The abstract principles of liberty, justice, and freedom that presumably unite these Resistance members are frequently and severely tested throughout the episodic narrative, which can be viewed as an incessant series of metaphoric loyalty oaths; each person must prove his devotion to the cause when he is not directly serving it. Because these oaths are never totally secure, Army of Shadows is an exciting film, filled with chase scenes, daring escapes, smugglings, murders, and midnight rendezvous. And the tension continues to build as the characters' survival instincts start to clash with the noble values and principles that unite them.
In contrast to most films about trained professionals, we learn next to nothing about the members of this group, principally because that knowledge can only compromise the mission. With one crucial exception, character background information is pushed aside for more serious matters. These people rarely chat; they look, observe, and think. Cerebral, bespectacled Gerbier (Lino Ventura) is the ad hoc leader of the group, Jean Francois (Jean-Pierre Cassel) is the handsome one with doubts about the mission, and Mathilde (Simone Signoret) is the pragmatic female member, but distinctions between Felix (Paul Crauchet), Le Bison (Christian Barbier), Claude Le Masque (Claude Mann) are moot. They are only bricks in an unstable, slowly built wall, ants in the tall grass that forage and crawl about and attend to their limited tasks. To their oppressors, their destruction does not merit a second thought.
Curiously, Melville opens his film with a quotation by George Courteline: "Unhappy memories! Yet I welcome you. You are my long lost youth." After seeing the film, it's difficult to understand Melville's nostalgia, but the thrill of youth and the abiding belief in the rightness of his political stance clearly affected him deeply; he too worked for the Resistance when he was in his 20s. Of course, since so much of this work was done in secrecy, any enthusiasm probably had to be suppressed by an inflexible, stoic outer shell. It's fitting, then, that the main actors are low-key and calm throughout Army of Shadows, confronting life's
This weight grows heavier as the film marches toward its grim ending. As he walks to his near-certain death, Gerbier has an elegant and troubling internal monologue about death and fate: "I'm going to die, and I'm not afraid. It's impossible not to be afraid of dying. But I'm too stubborn, too much of an animal to die. If I don't believe it to the very last moment, the very last second, I'll never die. What a revelation! The chief would love it. I've got to look into this more deeply." But his desire for more time is interrupted by a German guard. There is no more time. He has failed.
The film's last few scenes push into even darker territory as the group contemplates the most horrifying possible sacrifice in the name of a cause. When Mathilde is arrested, the leader of the Resistance describes the threat she poses to them with mathematical detachment. Never mind that she has helped several members with her ingenuity and planning; she is now more dangerous to them than she is helpful. She is a problem to be solved and solved quickly, without the hindrances of compassion. Appropriately, Mathilde's mysterious eyebrow raising when she confronts her comrades in the film's climax provides little emotional closure. And whatever traces of hope remain are obliterated by the film's closing titles, which give chilling glimpses into the future of the group members.
The restored print of Army of Shadows showed briefly in selected cities last year, often in theatrical runs lasting less than a week. Although it is currently available as a two-disc Criterion DVD, there are several reasons to see it in 35mm on the big screen. For one thing, it's much easier to appreciate the extraordinary achievement of cinematographer Pierre Lhomme, who created a claustrophobic atmosphere of dread and uncertainty by draining the images of any bright colors.
The characters in Army of Shadows scuttle around in a fog of grays, blacks, forest greens, and browns, and the subtle gradations of those hues disappear on DVD. Film is the only medium that can capture these shadings; the widest range of colors captured in any video format, even HD-DVD, is 17 million hues, while celluloid can capture over 800 million hues. Thus, what look like clumps of indifferent blackness on the best HDTV are actually important compositional elements; there is no such thing as a casually underlit shot in the film. The film's most memorable images are invariably of individual defeat, surrender, betrayal: a bowler hat on an abandoned cobblestone street; a handcuffed prisoner slumped in a chair; a traitor backed up against a wall; a man confronted by a wall of thick smoke.
Yet Melville's work is not negative or depressing; no great work of art is. But Army of Shadows is unflinching in its exploration of failure and, by extension, mortality. It is bleak but it is not defeatist; it is simply the best film of the year.
Army of Shadows
Brooks Museum of Art
Thursday, October 4th
Showtime is 7:30 p.m., tickets are $5 for museum members, $7 for nonmembers