Sublime Army of Shadows Remembers French Resistants

Jean-Pierre Melville’s magnificent Army of Shadows (1969), from his own screenplay, based on the novel by Joseph Kessel, is belatedly making its American debut at Film Forum on April 28 under the aegis of Rialto Pictures. It took Melville (1917-1973) 25 years to bring Kessel’s 1943 novel to the screen after he read it in London, where he and Kessel were serving with the Free French. Ironically, the movie received mixed reviews from the French critics, especially the post– nouvelle vague reviewers at Cahiers du Cinema, who dismissed it as an outdated homage to the deposed and discredited Charles de Gaulle after the riots of 1968. Marcel Ophüls’ The Sorrow and the Pity (1969) came out just after Army of Shadows, and it reflected a widespread skepticism in France and elsewhere about the true extent of French resistance to the German occupation.

Melville himself shared in this skepticism. In a 1971 interview with Rui Nogueira, he asked rhetorically, “Do you know how many Resistants there were in France at the end of 1940? Six hundred. It was only in February or March 1943 that the situation changed, because the first maquis date from April 1943. And it was the proclamation by Sauckel about sending young people to Germany that made a lot of people prefer to go underground. It was not a matter of patriotism.”

Seen today, Army of Shadows is revealed as a sublime tribute to the mostly doomed precious few who responded to the call of conscience in resisting the Nazi occupiers and the French traitors who collaborated with them. Lino Ventura as Philippe Gerbier is one of seven composite characters drawn from real-life models of martyrdom in the early years of the occupation. The others are the resourceful Mathilde, played by Simone Signoret; Luc Jardie, the chief, played by Paul Meurisse; the extraordinarily self-sacrificing François, played by Jean-Pierre Cassel; Claude La Masque, played by Claude Mann; Felix, played by Paul Crauchet; Le Bison, played by Christian Barbier; the Baron de Ferte-Talloire, played by Jean-Marie Robain; and Sere Reggiani making a cameo appearance as a resistant barber helping Gerbier escape from a Gestapo jail.

There are no spectacular triumphs for these shadow combatants, only the constant, fear-drenched danger of being caught, tortured and executed by the relentless forces arrayed against them. Of necessity, they became ruthless themselves with comrades who betrayed them. Where Melville is most masterly is in his placidly matter-of-fact pacing of these life-and-death existences. For a comparable cinematic achievement, I can think only of Roberto Rossellini’s equally sublime evocation of wartime heroism under existential pressure in General della Rovere (1959). Army of Shadows is a film to be seen and savored for its moral magnitude.

Melville made a memorable cameo appearance in Jean Luc-Godard’s Breathless (1960), portraying a pompous best-selling novelist being interviewed by Jean Seberg:

SEBERG: What is your greatest ambition in life?

MELVILLE: To become immortal … and then die.

Immortality’s a hard thing to calculate, but in his 13-film career (mostly in the genre of film noir), Melville has cast a haunting shadow of his own in film history.

No Idols Here

Paul Weitz’s American Dreamz, from his own screenplay, turns out to be satirically unbalanced in its attempted fusion of such varied targets as George Bush, Karl Rove, Dick Cheney, Muslim suicide bombers, and the hosts and contestants on American Idol. The only mild hit that Mr. Weitz scores is in his demonstration of the globalization of vulgarity, as the so-called “Clash of Civilizations” is supplanted by a universally watched, updated Major Bowes Amateur Hour that is much nastier and more showbiz-savvy than the original.

In this respect, Hugh Grant takes top acting honors as the toothsomely smiling Martin Tweed, a take-off on Simon Cowell. Dennis Quaid, as President Staton, is saddled with so many of the established and alleged foibles of George W. Bush that it renders him too broad a target in too narrow a context. Even such accomplished farceurs as Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are beginning to sound a little strained from chortling over the accumulating gaffes of the Bush administration. The movie’s suggestion that the President didn’t know about the uneasy cohabitation of Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds in Iraq is a gruesome joke that has been played on the spouses and parents of the dead and wounded men and women. But it isn’t funny. Nor is the idea of a potential suicide bomber as an American Idol contestant at all funny after 9/11.

That leaves the bulk of the movie, and the satire, resting on the shoulders of a television show with a larger voter turnout than our Presidential campaigns. And here, too, Mandy Moore’s squealing star wannabe, Sally Kendoo, is much too broad and transparent in her insincerity, as if to wink to her pop audience that she’s only kidding for the sake of the part. She’s clearly no Reese Witherspoon, either in subtle sweetness or accomplished bitchery. A more admirably nuanced performance is provided by Marcia Gay Harden as the First Lady, who never loses her wifely cool and warmth no matter how wild and woolly the President becomes. Indeed, Ms. Harden’s performance serves as a reassuring sign of the directorial modulation of Mr. Weitz’s runaway script.

The two most consistently funny performers in the film are Sam Golzari as Omer, the reluctant suicide bomber turned song stylist, and Tony Yalda’s Iqbal Riza, Omer’s cousin, coach and jealous rival all wrapped into one deliciously hammy package. Indeed, Omer and Riza add to the concert-film ambience of American Dreamz, taking much of the sting out of the failed satiric swipes. For his part, Willem Dafoe makes a valiant effort as the power behind the President and the voice piping into his earpiece, but his extremely balding make-up is something of a distraction; one can’t decide whether he’s supposed to be Mr. Rove or Mr. Cheney with the telltale snarl. In the end, needless to say, he gets a kind of comeuppance.

At the very least, Mr. Weitz can be credited with observing Anton Chekhov’s dramatic axiom stipulating that if a gun is displayed in the first act, it must be used by the last act. In this case, the gun is a bomb meant to kill the President. By the final fade-out, the bomb does go off and causes two fatalities. But fear not: The President is unharmed. Not exactly a happy ending, but a satirically convenient one just the same. After all, not only is there no business like show business, there is nothing else in the world but show business. And that’s sort of funny, when you think about it.

Only the French

Anne Fontaine’s Nathalie … , from a screenplay by Ms. Fontaine, Jacques Fieschi and Francoise-Olivier Rousseau (in French with English subtitles), turns out to be one of the most ingeniously erotic entertainments of the year, though the sex involved is more talk than action. An odd situation is set up when a wife learns that her husband has been unfaithful, and decides to determine what kind of forbidden pleasures he’s been seeking by hiring a prostitute to seduce him and report back on his behavior.

This tantalizing intrigue begins when Bernard (Gérard Depardieu) misses his surprise birthday party, and Catherine (Fanny Ardant), his gynecologist wife of 25 years, discovers from a cell-phone message that Bernard had missed the party because he was being unfaithful. When confronted by Catherine, Bernard makes no effort to dissemble: He nonchalantly philosophizes that all marriages run cold after a time. That’s just the way it is, he shrugs; it has happened before with him, and it will happen again. Right now he is between affairs, none of which mean anything anyway. As it turns out, Catherine is too sophisticated to react immediately to Bernard’s brazenly licentious attitude.

Her next move is to find a new girlfriend for him—but one who will serve as her spy. She crashes a private club for men and offers to buy a drink for a luscious bar girl named Marlène (Emmanuelle Béart). Marlène, looking at Catherine queerly, confides that she is amenable to having sex with another woman. Catherine calmly declines the invitation, though without any intimation of finality in her refusal, and explains her proposition to Marlène; she then suggests that Marlène change her name to “Nathalie” for the affair and pretend that she works as an interpreter. We then see “Nathalie” make her first contact with Bernard in a café by asking him for a cigarette. After that first eye-to-eye contact, everything that follows off-screen is reported on-screen to Catherine, who demands detailed descriptions. Marlène seems to enjoy the process, while Catherine is sometimes a little shocked by her husband’s behavior but always intrigued.

One cannot imagine this situation ever occurring in any American movie in any period, pre-code, post-code or current post-deluge. Indeed, I cannot even imagine such an erotically effective substitution in English of narrated sexual encounters for visual ones. The only two comparable cinematic examples I can think of also required subtitles: Bibi Andersson recounting a beach-group seduction to Liv Ullmann in Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966), and Mireille Darc’s similar story to a male listener in Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend (1967). Even today, American filmmakers would consider such a conceit either too creepy for the audience or too literary for the medium.

All I know is that the conceit works beautifully with the right personalities, talented and uninhibited, engaged in its execution. Nathalie … is quintessentially French, and yet curiously universal in its unexpected twists and turns as it demystifies human sexuality even in the course of describing it in great detail. Ms. Fontaine reportedly cast her two actresses for their voices: Ms. Ardant’s dryly amused but still emotionally vulnerable, Ms. Béart’s slowly and quietly seductive, but ultimately wistful and yearning. The cast alone is worth the price of admission.