I was writing a while ago that when Quentin Tarantino was making Inglorious Basterds he was not so much making a film about the Second World War and the Holocaust, but more a Tarantino film that happens during the Second World War and happens to have the Holocaust as a subject. Would this be a fair characterization of Jean-Pierre Melville‘s L’Armee des Ombres (Army of Shadows)? Is this merely a Melville film which says more about the director than about the war and the French Resistance?

source www.cinemapassion.com

Well, not really. It is true that L’Armee des Ombres has a very strong Melville touch. Made at the pick of the maturity of the director, it has an amazing familiar look with Le Cercle Rouge made one year later, the gangster story that was shown two weeks ago at the Herzlya Cinematheque, and about which I wrote about on the blog at that time. We are in familiar territory, with the director focusing on the characters and letting his splendid actors all the freedom they need to create great roles. His heroes have their own code of honor, and although we do not know much about who they are and where they come from we are led to recognize and respect their motivation and deeds, even when they may seem questionable on the sale of the accepted morality. There is also shared scenery between the two films – deserted roads and empty streets which seem a visual style mark of Melville.

(video source mongfu37)

And yet, there are more differences than similarities in my opinion. For Melville the Second World War and the Resistance were not just another theme, but a period that he lived through and a cause he participated actively in – to the point that a scene that seems completely benign today with De Gaulle decorating the fighting heroes of the Resistance let to a great outrage from some political circles and critics in a year 1969 when De Gaulle was close to the end of his political career and perceived as a conservative or even ‘reactionary’ president. Making a story about a group of fighters making the hard choices and putting in danger their own lives to do what is maybe today the obvious, but what so few people did in the real history is not just another heroic story about the war. It shows that war means not only risking own life, but also crossing the limits of accepted morality. The code of honor of the characters in this film exceeds the common judgment. While the behavior of the characters in permanent hiding and playing cat-and-mouse games with the Gestapo may remind the behavior of the heroes in the gangster movies of Melville, their motivation is totally different.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lu1tWjWObWg

(video source luvgod)

The story building in this film is not the best. The underground work of a group of fighters of the Resistance led by Luc Jardie (the actor Paul Meurisse), Philipe Gerbier (Lino Ventura), and Mathilde (Simone Signoret) is followed in the interval of an year, between 1942 and 1943. The plot has many points of discontinuity filled in by off-screen comments, and building the story is not really what seems to have interested Melville. His focus was on the situations, on the permanent tension and danger the characters live in, on the choices that they must make which are never easy – killing a traitor, risking their lives to save an imprisoned comrade, commit suicide or kill their fellows if their lives cannot be saved and endanger the continuation of the fight. There is only one choice which is not questioned – the choice to fight which seems out of doubt the right thing that needs to be done. The magnificent opening scene with the German soldiers parading on Champs Elysees is the moral background for everything that happens afterward. The defeated and humiliated France had to fight back. The question about why so few did the obvious was postponed by Melville for a film that he never got to make.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5D1nfIJ632o

(video source yaknbo)

Beside the opening there are many other memorable scenes in the film – mostly built on the relations between the characters and on the acting of all the actors in the team. Shining over the whole distribution are Lino Ventura and Simone Signoret, two splendid actors belonging to a golden generation of the French cinema who helas is gone now.  Their presence enriches a film which stays in memory for many reasons.