Yin, Yang, and Resistance
Army of Shadows premiered in 1969 to French audiences that wanted precisely fuck all to do with what was perceived as pro-DeGaulle. (Fear not, French friends, in four short years, you'll have an action-packed DeGaulle assassination thriler to eat up at the theater.) Apparently the rest of the world wasn't particularly interested in it either, because this restored print is the first to be released theatrically in the US.
We saw the trailer for this during The Proposition, and then M noted that it had 100% at Rotten Tomatoes. (Currently it has 92%, and I have to say that the guy from reeltalk is cracking me up: "Not a bad effort -- but filled with credibility gaps.") The trailer and reviews conspired to make us exert ourselves to see it.
And the first thing to do is hand it to the trailer mongers. In fact, I'd really like to see that trailer again, because I don't know how they found 2.5 minutes' worth of action in a completely actionless movie. Lack of action is not to worry (although seriously, you may want to see District B-13 first, 'cause then you're kind of DONE with action in France [lack of Vin notwithstanding] for a while). It's not like Jean-Pierre Melville was trying to make The Professional and accidentally made Red Zone Cuba (and thank Baal for that on both scores). In fact, Ebert tells me that Melville had no interest in making an action movie of any kind (you'll note that I am being unprecedentedly kind and magnanimous to Mr. Ebert in deference to his current ill health---I am not even going to mention that he is cribbing directly from Hitchcock/Truffaut with his rather pedantic little comment about action making tension external).
Still, the viewer should be forewarned. District B-13 is a lean, mean 83 minutes, which is right on the nose for how much sillyness one can stand. Army of Shadows, in all its actionless glory, is nearly double that length. (Well, ok, it's "nearly double" if you're bad at math, running 136 minutes.) And the Music Box Theatre has many fine qualities, but their vintagely uncomfortable seats ain't one of them. Because Melville thrusts realism from him as forcefully as he thrusts action, one also has no idea when the movie might end, which is a disconcerting feeling. (It's always possible this is just me. I went to the bathroom within 10 minutes of the end of Howard's End not because it was that desperate, but because I really had no idea it was that near to being over.)
Among what I'm realizing is a growing list of things eschewed by Melville here is any real kind of plot. If we exclude the Animal House credits (strange that, in two days, I've had two occasions to refer to a movie I've never seen), the whole of the movie takes place over about four months, from October 1942 to February 1943. Although the dates are given on screen, they are nearly irrelevant. The whole of the movie is disjointed day-in-the-life scenes of handful of people, and those experiences, their actions, and the decisions they make are, in good existentialist fashion, almost completely divorced from any "big picture" of the war.
Certainly, it's important that the setting is primarily Vichy France---important enough that Melville fought to be able to film the nearly surreal opening sequence (a parade of German soldiers, led by a marching band, goose-stepping past the Arc de Triomphe) in defiance of a law prohibiting German uniforms on the boulevard (again, courtesy Mr. Ebert's review). Similarly, when one of the main characters is in London, Melville has him duck into a cramped, makeshift nightclub as the air raid sirens wail and the bombs shake the building. But other than these brief scenes of temporal and cultural location, the war per se doesn't figure in the movie at all. For the audience as for the characters, the war might well be eternal, which lends greatly to the dismal, desperate atmosphere.
Also contributing to the existential goodness is the fact that in each day-in-the-life scenarior, Melville almost always places us firmly within the experience and point of view of a single character. There's an overwhelming abundance of tight close-up shots and internal monologue so that long shots revealing a detail of the background or another person in the larger frame would often make me jumpy. When your characters are paranoid and isolated, afraid to use their true names or to reveal the slightest information about themselves, that headspace is a claustrophobic space chock full of existential dread. (Weirdly, throughout the movie, I kept thinking of Lost. My household invented the "unwarranted skepticism jar" to fund the Stargate project. More recently, we've instituted a "pointless concealment of information" jar for the Islanders [it's really bad---M has suggested that regular staff meetings could improve things. M is not, in general, pro-staff meeting. Maybe it'll turn out that everyone is in a resistance group in WW III.)
Just as I have to hand it to the action-spelunker for the trailer, I also have to hand it to Melville (and, of course, the novelist and screenwriter) that he manages to create believable, emotionally meaningful relationships among his characters despite the rigors of existentialism. I also have to give them the rat-bastard award for then brutally ripping apart every single one of those graceful, delicate connections without ever making the "kill," as it were, seem gratuitous or the forging of the connection seem like heavy-handed foreshadowing. Apparently, my opinion is not entirely universal, though, as the Reader's Dave Kehr (of course) found this to be "strangely divided between art-house enigmas and melodramatic payoffs for the matinee crowd." If I tried to describe some of the "plot devices" involved in this, I suppose they would sound melodramatic and heavy handed---the photo of a beloved daughter representing the single weakness of an otherwise preternaturally cool woman; the philosopher-leader of the resistance showing up in the middle of the night, just when a character is contemplating his connection to both the man and his ideas; the brothers who never knew they were fighting for the same cause, etc.---but all I can say is that the ruthlessly understated actors and relentlessly flat, closed-off visual style keep things far too stark and cold for melodrama in my opinion.
Ebert is rather strident in his support of Melville, who he feels was greatly underappreciated in his time, going so far as to credit him with being the REAL innovator and spearhead of the French New Wave cinema (rather than those dirty crooks Godard, Truffaut, etc.). That's fair enough, I suppose, but certainly Melville seems to have had a give-and-take relationship with his fellow auteurs. For example, the barbershop scene is visually and atmospherically quite evocative of Godard's obsession with staircases in Alphaville, which predates this by 4 years. The blackly comic moments (which are sparsely distributed in this) are not entirely un-Bunuel-like, and not just in terms of material (Peter Kessel wrote the novel on which this is based as well as the novel on which Bunuel's Belle du Jour was based, which caused some wacky misunderstandings going into the movie).
I'm not sure whether I'm recommending the movie or not. Rather, I'm not sure I'm recommending scouring the countryside to see it in the theater. The print is gorgeously restored from his tragically pink with age state (or so M tells me). I'm not sure if the choking atmosphere will come across on DVD. But on the other hand, it's such a challenging film that it might go best with the comfort of one's own home.