Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Army of Shadows: Close Vested Gangster Film Retooled as Meditation on Anti-Fascist Resistance

Jean-Pierre Melville was a connoisseur of threadbare meditations on gangsters, thieves, criminals. Empathy was never asked for nor implied by backstory. I saw Le Cercle Rouge and Le Samourai at a time where I kind of preferred a spoon-fed association with real problems and neither of these films offered any kind of insight into anything aside from extensive male posturing. My assessment was that there was really nothing but b-movie frameworks stripped of sensationalism and excess, but with the same running time what was left was an empty con, just as much as the one being pulled in front of the camera.

What they had, though, was solitude. People said no more than they needed, conversations were terse, interactions minimal beyond the required task at hand. It's as if the goal of the criminal acquisitions was to never have to speak to anyone again. Le Samourai is only tragic in the sense that the one attempt at romance is undone by the lifestyle it would inevitably be attached to. What drew me to Army of Shadows was not how the substantive shift from underground crime to underground resistance might give the film a more bombastic, stylistic heft and thus an engaging draw, but how the preceding cold and distant meditations might work on something as personal and dangerous as fighting nazis, especially personal as Melville was a resistance member himself.

Well, maybe a viewing of The Dirty Dozen did get me in the mood for a little anti-authoritarian rabble rousing, but there was nothing rousing and little to no rabble. For most of the film there was actually nothing separating it from previous Melville offerings except for a change of aims. The film is almost silent, the characters as close to the vest as Delon's thieves, their ongoings as stark and aversive as Le Cercle Rouge's thorough but impersonal diagrams of escapes, thefts and chases. The same sense of tragedy looms, but something clicks in a way that is brilliant and suggests Army of Shadows should both be a starting and ending point in any Melville retrospective, because the context illuminates both within and without the proceedings, with repercussions that extend backwards in his canon.

Army of Shadows' main conceit is that a fascist regime will create a self-contained globule in which those trapped inside are at the behest of whatever the organizational framework sets up for them. Therefore, criminals are no longer a class of their own, the world of crime is now an ever-enveloping overhaul of any individual who might be deemed disagreeable to the status quo. Plucked from all nationalities, all races, all creeds, it no longer takes direct transgressions of criminal activity or ideological confrontation, but arbitrary distinctions decided by portentous and paranoid whim. In fact, as is observed in a prisoner camp in the film's beginning, the black marketeers end up being an odd fixture in an otherwise political/racial set of government targets.

The fascist regime here is the capitulatory Vichy government of France, footstools for the overarching German forces. The center character, Phillippe Gerbier is a former civil engineer, stripped of his function and now an organizational leader in the underground French resistance. On a side note I'd like to mention Melville's choice of Lino Ventura over Alan Delon for Gerbier, the exact opposite of a leading man, he's stocky and stout with a pudgy face and glasses. He looks like my grandfather did in his fifties with the advent of a black toupee. No longer is Delon's cool disposition a photo opportunity, but the ravages of a real person.

The film's lack of distinguishing character isn't a directorial misfire but a reflection on the drab temperament of an occupied country. Following Gerbier from Vichy holding to resistance hideouts there's almost no distinction in the aura painted. It's the same draw, and that draw is short. Early on, during an prolonged and painful execution of a traitor who sold out key elements of the movement to the occupation, I initially thought of the Guardian's Peter Bradshaw walloping Syriana with confused outrage as their presumably progressive pedigree was ironically undone by the choice of showing an american being tortured by an arab who was actually a british character actor. Here there's a point, though, as the distinction between resistance members and common criminals becomes that same aforementioned draw.

The only references to family come when one member deflects a train station suitcase inspection by the Nazis by grabbing a mother's child and calmly blending in to her family as the previously missing patriarchal figure, shortly after dropping the child to face lower guard inspection anyways. The other comes when Gerbier and co-resistant Mathilde are discussing a dangerous operation and she pulls out her wallet to show a picture of her 17-year old daughter. Instead of affectionately commenting with an interested platitude of some sort he tells her to get rid of the picture for safety, which culminates in a final unfamilial blow in which loyalty is absurdly set up against loyalty. This in no way is meant to characterize the one strong (and really, only) female character as an emotional hazard, she's actually based on a member of the French Resistance named Lucie Aubrac and is generally portrayed as a mastermind with a no-nonsense head on her shoulders.

The only references to love are in a fleeting but discarded reflection by Gerbier on Mathilde, and a platonic adoration Gerbier has for resistance supreme leader Luc Jardee, a mathematical genius Gerbier familiarized himself with during his days as a civil engineer. Jardee's brother is the would-be leading man, a dashing former pilot now in it for the sport of things reduced to the periphery because go-it-alone heroics and romantic thrills are blockaded by the morose and clandestine proceedings. There are no affairs, there is no love, there is what must be done, an association of self-effacing individuals preserving a right to function in a way that has become as abstract and unattainable as any philosophical text by which they might be pushed to persevere.

When Gerbier leads a team to London to procure weapons from England, he ends up escaping a German blitzkrieg by stepping into a youthful British Army jukebox soiree. The absurdity of the scene isn't how the troops keep up while their towns are blown to bits, but how an underground member who hasn't allowed himself any kind of joyous emotional engagement in god knows how long can't rest with the proceedings for a minute, choosing instead to go back out to the crater-making havoc outside.

The film's emotional aspect is less of a closet case than a closet raided bare, a black hole of dedicated, methodical coldness that leaves no spirit untrampled in its wake. The spy games and daring games of deception I expected unfold in the same impersonal way Melville's previously thefts and procedurals did, but the point here seems to be these things aren't a game. An attempt later in the film to break a resistance member from torturous captivity doesn't go anywhere, as the ambulatory disguises are sent away by a Nazi doctor who tells them a dying man can no longer be revived for further torture. Here there aren't any grisly torture sequences, just the dismal, horrific-looking aftermath. The faces of the captives are transformed into archeological digs, failed sculptures of harried rock that are painful just to behold.

The criminal snitches in ditches code of honor that permeates every forming camaraderie is what also forms the film's final nail in the coffin for every character's semblance of humanity. When a capitivity leads to some dangerously detrimental developments a hit is order on a former ally. Instead of it being given to one member to take care of, everyone still alive packs into a car and takes off. Gerbier turns to Jardie and quips that he'd never thought he'd see the day when someone as grand as the philosopher Jardie would sit in backseat with a den of killers. That they were already dead inside is no coincidence.

In the film's one legitimately breathtaking sequence, a summation of the loss at hand comes flashing at Gerbier, reflecting on the small things he was forced to give up while being led to his doom. His lack of games is met with a game in itself, a shooting range in which all prisoners have the opportunity to run fast enough to make it to the next round of summary fire. His defying act of self-preservation has nothing to do with his life but with his dignity as he has to decide on whether to give in to their game and run or stand there and be shot.

That the movie eventually is revealed to be a diagrammatic portrait of the perpetual undoing of the resistance movement by external forces is there met by internal undoing of what it means to fight for your humanity. The excluded explication here is a mirror of the excised self a shadow network requires of a saboteur. The ground-up sabotage is both anti-authoritarian and slowly but surely an authoritarian effacement of the individual at their own hands.