Monday, 27 May 2013

L' armée des ombres (1969) - Jean-Pierre Melville

Right from the opening image of a troop of Nazis jackbooting their way down the Champs-Élysées, the impotent image of the Arc de Triomphe looming large behind them, it’s obvious that Jean-Pierre Melville’s salute to the French Resistance isn’t going to be shot through any sort of rose tinted lens. Just as it feels the Nazis are about to march off the screen and into the audience Melville freezes the frame and the film proper begins. Éric Demarsan’s slowly descending piano notes chime out over a rainswept murky country landscape. Cutting through the scenery is a prison van transporting Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura) to a prisoner of war camp. Gerbier is a leader of a small French Resistance cell operating out of Marseille. Melville kicks L' armée des ombres off as he means to go on, it’s all very gloomy minor key stuff. Ventura’s hangdog features hint at defeat whilst his eyes and mannerisms convey anything but.

L' armée des ombres was adapted from Joseph Kessel's book of the same name. Rather than going for a straight ahead narrative Melville instead opts for a series of vignettes. Which at first seem unrelated but later become more and more intricate. One of Melville’s genius touches is the way he introduces each new character through someone we have already met, so for instance after our introduction to Gerbier has played out, we cut to a new scene with a new character - Félix Lepercq (Paul Crauchet) sitting in a car with Gerbier, then through Félix we meet Jean-François Jardie (Jean-Pierre Cassel), who in turn introduces the audience to Mathilde (Simone Signoret) and so on. It works very much in the same way as the faction in the film does, very clever. Very Melville.

Jean-Pierre Melville only really made two types of films during his short career - gangster flicks and war films, or more accurately films set during the German occupation of France during WWII. Melville was an active member of the resistance during WWII, and this comes across in spades in L' armée des ombres with it’s myriad of interlocking stories and characters. There’s a huge attention to detail that runs throughout the film as well as Melville’s fixation with methodical storytelling. No Nouvelle Vague jump cuts for Melville, far better to almost have things play out in real time. This of course makes scenes seem more real, such as the execution of a resistance member who has betrayed the cause. When you know the camera isn't going to look away, it becomes just that little too real.

Visually there is no mistaking that L' armée des ombres is a film by Jean-Pierre Melville. The washed out green, grey and blue colour pallet, the distressed set design it all screams Melville. Likewise the stilted almost mannequin acting style so favoured by the great man is on display here too. Melville drags stunning performances out of his actors, Simone Signoret is wonderful in one of the few strong female roles in Melville’s filmography. Just check out the look on her face during her last moments on screen. The real star of the film though is Lino Ventura, who gives one of the most understated performances of his career despite the fact that his relationship with Melville had become so bad during the filming, that they had stopped talking directly to each other.

One of the glories of L' armée des ombres is despite the sombre almost melancholy air that hangs over it, it has the sort of set piece action scenes that would have singled Melville out as a future Bond director. There are numerous prison breaks, assassinations and the like. Yet just like his gangster films these scenes never unbalance the film. He builds tension to almost uncomfortable points at times, such as the attemt to rescue Félix from his cell. Good stuff.

L' armée des ombres falls right slap bang in the middle of Melville’s greatest run of films, which started with Le deuxième souffle (1966), continued with Le samouraï (1967) and concluded with Le cercle rouge (1970). For various reasons L' armée des ombres failed to ignite the French box office, and was mauled by the critics for being out of touch with the cinema of the day. After all it arrived just a year after the ’68 student riots in Paris. Vietnam was on everybody’s mind and a film about events from a quarter of a century before must have just felt old hat. It never even received an American release until 2005, but is now seen as one of Melville’s masterpieces and probably his most personal film. Everybody owes it to themselves to see this.

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