At the Movies

Michael Wood

When critics accused Jean-Pierre Melville of shooting his characters as if they were in a gangster movie, he didn’t take the remark as a compliment. ‘Absolutely idiotic,’ he said. He was right in a sense, because the critics were not intending a compliment, but what was he resisting? Melville’s best-known films – Le Doulos (1962), Le Samouraï (1967), Le Cercle rouge (1970), for example – are gangster movies, versions of America converted into sheer style by the transfer to France. Why wouldn’t they be shot accordingly? Well, the film in question was not any of the above, and not a gangster movie. It was L’Armée des ombres (1969), Melville’s masterpiece about the Resistance, still often a matter of style, ways of acting and speaking, and above all not speaking, but also a matter of what we might call moral style: how to sound certain when you’re not, how to make ugly but necessary decisions, how to live with the lessons of your own fear.

Army in the Shadows, to give it its English title, was first released in the US only last year, and was greeted by several critics as ‘the best film of 2006’. And last month the Criterion Collection brought out a handsome DVD set, including a digital version of the 2004 restoration of the film, and plentiful commentary and back-up. It recounts the adventures of a group of Resistance activists from late 1942 to early 1943, includes a visit to the headquarters of the Free French in London (complete with a glimpse of De Gaulle), and seems at first to be a sequence of illustrations of the life of the movement. A man is arrested, plans an escape, gets taken to Paris for interrogation before he can put his plan into effect. In Paris he kills a German guard and manages to get away, back to his work in clandestinity. He and his comrades execute a traitor in Marseille, secretly transport one of their leaders to England. A member of their group is arrested by the Gestapo in Lyon, and there is a protracted but failed attempt to get him out. The central character is also picked up again and this time taken out to be shot; he is spirited away by his partners at the last minute. Another traitor is executed, and the film ends with detailed verbal information, in white letters on a black screen, about the deaths of all the remaining four chief characters we have met, not too long after the events of the film. Three others have died in the course of the story.

But as you can probably tell even from this quick and nasty summary, the film is not a sequence of illustrations. It just looks like one for a while as it discreetly and elegantly turns into something else: a portrait not of the work of the Resistance but of the workers. The constant risk is important – ‘We are not an insurance company,’ one character says – but more important still is the unspoken devotion to the (also unspoken) cause, and the bleak moral cost of this devotion. This emphasis is beautifully indicated in the prison camp at the opening. Our hero, Philippe Gerbier, played by the bullish but soft-spoken Lino Ventura, is placed by the commandant in a shed with five other inmates: one a young Communist, one a young dying Catholic and three people who claim they have been wrongly arrested – the reverse of resisters, in other words. Ventura thinks it is very shrewd of the commandant, a well-focused attack on his morale, to put him with ‘three imbeciles and two lost children’. He needs to get out of there to remember what resistance is, and we see him in a similar mood late in the film, in hiding, useless to everyone, as he thinks, as if his very personality was present to him only in active difficulty and danger.

He is not as tough as he looks, though. In a particularly grim and haunting scene he and two colleagues find they can’t shoot their traitor as they had planned, because the previously empty house next door is now occupied, and so decide, after some discussion, to strangle him. They have this conversation in the presence of the traitor himself, a bewildered and innocent-looking young man, who finally crumples into what appears to be frightened astonishment rather than anything like an awareness of approaching death. One of Gerbier’s colleagues says he can’t go through with this, because he’s never done such a thing before. ‘Moi non plus,’ Gerbier says gruffly. The point is not how you feel but the necessity of the action. This is why Melville, as he has said in an interview, doesn’t give us more details about what the young man has done and why. What interests him at this point are the consequences of betrayal, the weak points of the movement, rather than any judgment of individual actions.

At a later moment, about to be shot, as he thinks, Gerbier says to himself, as his predecessor does in Joseph Kessel’s very good novel (same title, 1943) on which the film is based: ‘I’m going to die, and I’m not afraid, it’s impossible not to be afraid when you’re going to die. It’s because I’m too limited, too much of an animal to believe it. But if I don’t believe it till the last moment, until the ultimate edge, I shall never die. What a discovery!’ But then the Gestapo officer, out of sheer sadism, offers the group of men to be executed a special chance. They can start running, and if they reach the far wall of the prison yard they . . . can be killed next time instead of this one. Gerbier swears to himself that he won’t run as the others do, then finds himself running. It is because he runs that his comrades can save him, but there is still something he can’t get over. The German officer knew he would run.

In fact, while Melville clearly admires the heroes who keep quiet under torture – there are two of them in the movie – the whole story tilts in the end towards the notion of pardonable but still damaging weakness. Mathilde, magnificently played by Simone Signoret in her best brisk, wise, broken-hearted manner, is a brilliant Resistance organiser who among other things orchestrates Gerbier’s extraordinary escape from what looked like certain death. But she has a flaw: not her love for her 17-year-old daughter, but her unwillingness to let go of a photo of the girl, as she knows she should and says she will. When she is finally arrested the photo offers an unmistakeable clue to her affection, and allows the Gestapo to get her to name names rather than deliver her daughter to the horrors she is threatened with. Gerbier decides she must be killed in order to prevent further naming, because she knows so much, and when his two subordinates refuse to help him, out of an understandable loyalty to everything Mathilde had done for them and means to them, the head of the whole Resistance movement, Luc Jardie, a philosopher turned activist played by Paul Meurisse, explains that Mathilde in reality wants to be killed, that her behaviour throughout her arrest and release is saying just that. The subordinates are convinced, and after they have left, Gerbier asks Jardie if he believes what he just said. Jardie says he doesn’t know, and in a truly indescribable scene, the four men, in a car, catch up with Mathilde on a Paris street. She sees them and understands exactly what is happening – although this is far from the same as wanting to be killed – and one of them shoots her. As she falls, the car speeds away, and the camera speeds away with it, the walls of the houses seeming to race past, as if we ourselves were fleeing this unbearable execution.

These people are not gangsters but this is, in a way, as Amy Taubin says in an essay reproduced in the Criterion DVD package, the world of Melville’s gangster movies: a place where loyalty can’t be counted on not because people are not heroic – Mathilde was heroic, and her final choice must have been made in full consciousness of what she was doing – but because reasons for disloyalty are everywhere, and some of them are good ones. Melville himself must have seen this connection, since in another conversation, when reminded that he had been accused of treating the theme of the Resistance exactly as he did the theme of Le Doulos, said: ‘Very probably. I feel no need to apologise.’ If you look up the keywords for Le Doulos on the International Movie Database, you will find the first three are ‘betrayal’, ‘frame-up’ and ‘hitman’. Melville said it was a film in which ‘all characters are two-faced, all characters are false.’ In Army in the Shadows, we might say, all characters are two-faced and all characters are true – true to something.

With all this in mind it seems stranger and stranger that Melville should call the film ‘a retrospective reverie, a nostalgic pilgrimage’, from which he had ‘excluded all realism’. He also says, even more curiously, ‘I had no intention of making a film about the Resistance,’ but we have already seen how the actual movie might elude such an intention. What Melville seems to mean is that a film released in 1969 about events taking place in 1942-43 would have to be nostalgic, and that even bad old times become good times when they are your own. This is the force of the quotation from Georges Courteline that opens the movie: ‘Bad memories/you are nevertheless welcome . . ./you are my distant youth.’

In fact the movie refines and complicates this claim considerably, right from its remarkable opening shot. We see the Arc de Triomphe from the Champs-Elysées looking west towards the Bois de Boulogne. Empty street, towering arch. Then we hear military music and stamping feet, and we expect a parade to appear behind the arch and come through it or round it. We are still watching for this when the parade appears on the left of the screen, bandleader, band, marching soldiers and all, reaches the arch from the side and turns towards us. Germans, of course, and now they keep coming on, like the train arriving at the station in the Lumière brothers’ famous film. They stop in a freeze-frame right in front of us, just a moment, it seems, before they would have crashed into the camera itself. These are clearly the bad guys, and this is what the image is about. But they are not bad memories. They are excellent memories, memories of the days when there were bad guys, indisputable enemies we could agree on. And even the horror of Mathilde’s execution is not simply a bad memory. It is a marker of the clash of different, impossible decisions. In this sense the film is a reverie and a pilgrimage, but to two quite different sets of old times. One is a simpler world, where we knew who we were. And the other is a world of steep moral cost, full of prices we hope we never have to pay.