Army of Shadows

Had they known precisely who they were holding in their makeshift prison camp, the head of the Lyon cell of the French Resistance, it is likely the authorities would have made immediate efforts to interrogate Philippe Gerbier when he was first detained, but instead he was simply held with other persons of interest suspected of being subversives and undesirables, the chemist, the colonel, the salesman, the Catholic and the Communist, “three imbeciles and two lost children” in the opinion of Gerbier, and upon his transfer to Paris he took advantage of the situation to escape.

Reuniting with his comrades, they resumed their work, first luring and executing the former associate who was believed to have betrayed them, no questions asked or evidence presented, then evacuating downed Allied airmen to the coast to a waiting submarine to be conveyed home to Britain, a life of danger where any close relationships can be a liability, where few can be trusted and even family members are not always who they seem to be.

Jean-Pierre Melville a director more known for his crime thrillers such as Le Cercle Rouge, adapted from Joseph Kessel’s 1943 novel of the same name, L’Armée des ombres (Army of Shadows) was released in 1969, starring The Medusa Touch’s Lino Ventura as Gerbier alongside Paul Meurisse and Jean-Pierre Cassel as brothers “Saint” Luc and Jean-François Jardie and Room at the Top‘s Simone Signoret as Mathilde, all of them dedicated to their duty and resigned to their most likely fate before a firing squad or shot down on the cobbled streets of occupied France.

Taking place between October 1942 and February 1943, Army of Shadows parallels the anonymity of the work, a slow film with few introductions or explanations, the characters playing the long game and consciously keeping themselves apart lest they betray one another if captured or draw unwanted attention to themselves, the lack of plans or motivations making it seem like a sequence of random events only tangentially connected rather than the through line of a clear narrative, Melville’s conspicuous detachment making it a cold experience.

The hard decisions having no weight as the viewer has no emotional bond with Gerbier and the others, their lives declared to be of no value to them yet with no burning passion for their homeland or animosity towards their occupiers to fill the void, they are indeed an army of shadows, undefined and without depth; compare this with the British/Belgian co-production Secret Army broadcast a decade later depicting the agents of Lifeline and the occupying force with whom they shared public spaces, smiling, laughing and serving wine while behind closed doors they led the double lives of complicated and conflicted loyalties.

Restored for Blu-ray as part of StudioCanal’s Vintage World Cinema collection, the new edition of Army of Shadows is supported by the feature length documentary The Hidden side of the Story and a profile of Melville, born Jean-Pierre Grumbach, he and his siblings Jacques and Janine all acting as operatives of the French Resistance during the war, experiences which informed the film and the decision to present proceedings without romanticised heroism or foolish hope, people doing what they believe they must because the alternative is to capitulate to the unthinkable.

Army of Shadows will be available on Blu-ray, DVD and digital download from StudioCanal from Monday 3rd June



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