Cinephiles eventually grow accustomed to the war movie—vintage tales of heroic derring-do under fire—and the anti-war movie, with its unspeakable horrors against humanity, but ambiguous war films still have the power to surprise. Jean-Pierre Melville's 1969 WWII film Army of Shadows (L'Armée des ombres) is such a picture, from an auteur who refuses to deny the thrilling strangeness of wartime yet recognizes its emergence from man's inhumanity to man. Profoundly unsettling and yet a deeply felt testament to heroism, Army of Shadows captures the spirit of the truth instead of "printing the legend."
Remarkably, Melville's masterpiece never received a US release, until now (in a restored print from Rialto Pictures). An accounting of the French Resistance based on Joseph Kessel's true-to-life novel and Melville's own first-hand experience during the war years, Army of Shadows finds the auteur at his best, coolly observing lost souls grimly proceeding in a hardly hopeful campaign against their German occupiers. Italian-born Lino Ventura plays Philippe Gerbier, a Resistance agent who begins in the film in Gestapo custody ("sandwiched between three fools and two lost souls"), but emerges to resume organizing Resistance operations alongside tough cookie Mathilde (Simone Signoret).
Melville's subject hasn't lost any of its relevance: Army of Shadows is about what a people under siege will do, in desperate circumstances, and the cruelty of tragic inevitabilities of circumstance that illustrate the irrationality of war. In one scene, Gerbier and his compatriots (Paul Crauchet, Christian Barbier, and Claude Mann) awkwardly discuss how they'll dispatch a traitor, even as the traitor nervously listens. An ironic subplot concerns two brothers in the movement: the younger one (Jean-Pierre Cassel) is unaware that his intellectual elder (Paul Meurisse) leads the entire Resistance. In wartime, Melville reminds us, what people don't know can hurt them, and trust is the paramount value.
With his multiple protagonists (who trade off narration), Melville outlines the valorous and dirty deeds of heroes in taut action sequences that reach unusually existential heights. The squat Gerbier makes an unlikely but riveting action star, whether leaping out of a plane with his specs taped to his head in a jittery parachute sequence or escaping the custody of armed guards. As a power-station sign announces, the "Danger of Death" is behind every door and corner.
Gerbier says, "There's nothing sacred anymore," and, indeed, Melville frames the film with two distinctly corrupted visions of the Arc D'Triomphe. The film's opening shot (which, at $50,000, may be the most expensive in French cinema) depicts the German army parading down the Champs-Elysées; by picture's end, Melville replaces perverted pomp and circumstance with a somber turning away from the ironic monument to peace. In London to meet with DeGaulle, Gerbier takes in Gone With the Wind and a confederate remarks, "the war will be over for the French when they can see this great movie"; the next scene shows London in the flames of the Blitz.
The cast brilliantly serves this sharp but understated observation of the absurd. Melville's desolate tone, set with cold-hued, overcast imagery, can easily turn to suspense with the amplification of a ticking clock, or the encroachment of shadows. Melodrama won't do for Melville (with gratitude, I can note that Army of Shadows is never Charlotte Gray sexy), but with an opening title card, the director humbly acknowledges his unreliable muse, spanning a misty gap of years: "Bad memories, I welcome you anyway...You are my long-lost youth."
Army of Shadows makes its Blu-ray debut from Criterion in a terrific special edition featuring the 2004 restoration in a hi-def transfer approved by director of photography Pierre Lhomme. The image quality is impeccable, with the clean source yielding true hues and fine detail for an ever-film-like appearance. The biggest improvement evident from Criterion's 2007 DVD release is in sharpness, which gives the picture a bit more depth. Audio options include uncompressed mono and DTS-HD Master Audio 4.0. Though the source material's aural fullness is nothing to write home about, this disc maximizes the elements, cleaning them up with digital restoration tools for their best-yet clarity.
All DVD features have been ported over to Blu-ray, beginning with an incisive commentary by film historian Ginette Vincendeau, who discusses the film's thematic import and provides historical context about the film's making and reception.
"Jean-Pierre Melville, Filmmaker" (4:52, HD), a 1968 French television segment, allows us to hear briefly from the filmmaker.
"Pierre Lhomme: Revisiting a Masterpiece" (14:06, HD) goes into detail with the film's cinematographer, and "Françoise Bonnot: Editing with Melville" (10:55, HD) with the editor, whose mother had likewise edited for Melville. Both interviews were recorded in 2006.
A "Restoration demonstration" (7:12, HD) bears out Llhomme's assertion that the film looks better than ever.
"L'Invité du dimanche" (30:16, HD), also from French TV, dates to March 1969. Interviewees include Melville, Signoret, novelist Joseph Kessel, and Andre Dewavrin, a WWII Resistance connection between England and France.
"Melville et L'Armée des ombres" (27:31, HD), from 2005, gives a solid overview of the film and its director, with reflections by admirers like Jean-Pierre Cassel and Bertrand Tavernier.
"Le Journal de la résistance" (34:09, HD) is a 1944 documentary short—narrated by Noel Coward—featuring rare footage from the French front lines during the German occupation.
"Simone Signoret and Lucie Aubrac" (5:25, HD), dating to 1984, gathers the perspectives of two cast members.
"Ouvrez les guillemets" (23:20, HD) is a 1973 French TV excerpt featuring interviews with surviving Resistance members.
The accompanying full-color booklet includes images from the film, credits, and tech specs, as well as essays by Amy Taubin and Robert O. Paxton, and the relevant excerpts from Rui Nogueira's interview book Melville on Melville.
This is the definitive home-video presentation of a classic of world cinema, a must for cineastes' home libraries.
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