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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Resistance, Rebellion, and Death
by Donald Levit

The good news first: Army of Shadows/L’Armée des ombres is getting its US première, albeit thirty-seven years late. With redone subtitles and translation commissioned by Rialto Pictures and 35-mm restoration overseen by its cinematographer Pierre Lhomme, the tale of 1942 resistance to Nazi occupation opens in New York and Los Angeles on April 28, 2006.

A model for France’s Nouvelle Vague, director Jean-Pierre Melville (born Grumbach, the surname de guerre taken in honor of Herman Melville) came late to cinema because of World War II and, whichever of two legends is truer -- his evacuation to England in Churchill’s “miracle of Dunkirk,” or Maquis activist in Paris and then with Free French forces in Italy and Lyon -- the experience shaped his tendency for war themes just as surely as ‘30s Hollywood noirs inclined him toward crime flickers.

The bad news? Unfortunately, the reality does not live up to expectations. Not a bad effort, mind you, although some found it boring, but filled with credibility gaps and much in need of tightening. Hardly any vehicle with Simone Signoret can be a washout, but, indicative of the overall problem here, even she uninspiredly does a by-the-numbers walkthrough as iconic Resistance figure Mathilde. (The actress’ Jewish father had fled to London to join the Free French, and, for political conviction, she and second husband Yves Montand did get involved in some mediocre projects.)

Lhomme’s somber palette of blues and blacks, with the occasional soiled white, is good, as is an Eric de Marsan score whose subtlety shows up the overkill of today’s wall-to-wall blowout. And, perhaps a generational thing, it is nice to see plain old elegance in grooming -- even to a suit, tie and topcoat under a parachutist’s flak jacket or in a prison camp -- and unapologetic luxury in venerable hotels and manor houses.

It took the director a quarter-century to get it all together to make this from his own screenplay based on Resistance member Joseph Kessel’s 1943 book. A hymn to the bravery and sacrifice of many individuals in a nation whose heart is once again under scrutiny, the film nevertheless savors of gangster characters -- an “absolutely idiotic view,” fumed Melville, equally dismissing pro-Gaullist readings -- but suffers most of all from being “shot cold by me in 1969” as opposed to the heat of the novel’s birth in wartime.

If one is to argue that nice scruples must be jettisoned in life-and-death struggle against barbarity, or that spies and irregular shadow armies must be unemotionally precise, so be it. But, too drained of heart’s blood, the characters are not cinematically alive, and imprisonments, executions, interrogation beatings and two mercy killings -- one effected, the other only considered -- are finally stone cold.

An abusively long prologue introduces Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura), forty-one, a mild engineer being interned without charges. Perhaps intended to illustrate the scope of such detentions, this long piece nevertheless should have been cut entirely (along with a number of other, shorter excrescences). Cool but breathless, he escapes during transfer -- aided by a wonderful wordless barber (Serge Reggiani) -- and rejoins the Resistance cell in which he and three subordinates are so inexperienced in ruthlessness that, tragic but reflected only in their faces, the execution of an informer borders on macabre comedy.

Minus the gimmickry of course, there is a pre-FX-infected James Bond charm to these Maquisards’ activities in Marseilles, Paris, Lyon and London. Gerbier admires the work and the person of Paris organizer Mathilde, worships his scholarly chief Luc Jardie (Paul Meurisse), and recruits a new member, bored womanizer Jean-François (Jean-Pierre Cassel). Improbably, the latter two are brothers but, so close to the vest must things be played, unaware of each other’s underground activities.

In the English capital, where De Gaulle pins a medal on Luc, Philippe is advised of the detention of one of his group. From a château hideout back in France, he plots either to rescue Félix (Paul Crauchet) -- Mathilde’s idea -- or kill him to spare him further torture. Professing to have lost his nerve, perhaps hoping to reach the imprisoned man himself, Jean-François disappears and is soon arrested.

Separately, and foolishly on his part, Philippe is picked up in a ration-card dragnet in a bistro, and after he is rescued by Mathilde -- and in hiding, without his new glasses manages to read the Chief’s five small-print volumes -- she in turn is taken into custody while carrying a photograph of her daughter, whose life becomes a bargaining chip. Realizing this has dragged on too long, Melville wraps up the fates of all but one of these conspirators in hurried end titles.

More comprehensible seen on the screen than read online, the story is no less serviceable than most. But the laconic plotting is too drawn out, the pacing slow. Melville professed to “have every reason to be satisfied with [his] retrospective reverie, a nostalgic pilgrimage,” so perhaps this spy business is, after all, less Ian Fleming’s fast cars, fast women and high living than self-denial and low-key drudgery.

(Released by Rialto Pictures; not rated by MPAA.)

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