BY NEIL FAUERSO
Recently released in the U.S. for the first time, Jean-Pierre Melville’s Army of Shadows is one of the great cinematic fugues of sustained tension. Melville, who died in 1973 (Army of Shadows was originally released in 1969), is an unheralded master of timing and style. Achingly slow, carefully shot with a painter’s eye for visuals, his films (The Red Circle, Le Samurai) unfurl with a sense of glacially elegant dread. Simply put, he’s one of the few directors who’s completely singular.
Army of Shadows is Melville’s most somber and gloomy piece. Semi-autobiographical, it concerns the constant midnight paranoia of French Resistance operatives at the peak of World War II. When we first meet Gerbier (Lino Ventura), he is placed in a prison camp by a winkingly spineless Nazi cog. Gerbier keeps a stiff upper lip before executing a daring and terrifying escape capped off by the tensest shave imaginable in a barbershop. The rest of the nearly two-and-a-half-hour film is Gerbier and his Resistance comrades constantly running, always on guard, lugubrious and stoic.
Army of Shadows is one of the most rigorous mood pieces I’ve ever seen. Melville eschews any formal narrative arc in favor of sustained atmosphere. Because of this, Army of Shadows is not as richly engaging as The Red Circle, and is often an exhausting viewing experience. Also, given that the entire film revolves around the Resistance operative running and eluding the Nazis and little else, the movie accidentally reinforces our American stereotype that the French Resistance did little more than puff their cheeks out and act serious.
Still, this is an essential film—one that will shine both in the theaters and on DVD. There are many unforgettable moments—the execution of a turncoat comrade, a hair-raising escape plan that leads them deep into a Nazi torture camp, a sloppy parachute jump. A master director, Melville captures the vulnerability and desperation of combat zones of all ilk while retaining the glaze of aesthetic perfection. As movies become more and more craven and hyperbolic (seriously, isn’t it a trip to watch an old classic like The French Connection and see how slow and measured it feels?), Melville’s movies are a reminder of the intelligence and multitudes contained in this medium. As a look into the heart of rootlessness and unheralded courage, it doesn’t get much better. A