Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Review :: L'Armée des ombres (1969)

It is only recently, over the last year or so, that I've become familiar with la nouvelle vogue -- the French New Wave -- and specifically with the filmmakers Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Melville. My baptism into New Wave films came, fittingly enough, with Godard's whirlwind A bout le souffle (Breathless), but while that film certainly secured a position of extreme importance and excitement for the New Wave in my own mind it was not until I came to the movies of Melville that the movement became for me something more than just an aesthetic innovation. The films of Godard, films such as A bout le souffle or Bande a part, are fascinating and exhilarating but I find that their iconoclasm and almost reckless sense of innovation in a way almost impede their ability to simply tell good stories. In Godard, aesthetics and narrative become fused and yet slightly desynchronized, as if the two, blended as they are, are never quite able to connect in a satisfying way. Take Breathless for example: the jazzy re-invention of noir and gangster sensibilities inside an accelerating and at first rather disorienting editing style almost becomes a story unto itself and threatens to overwhelm, through sheer aesthetic force, any concerns either Godard or we may have for the film's actual narrative. One of the effects of this, at least on me, is the formation of a slight gap between viewer and film. I feel distanced from the screen, from the characters and their emotions, from the immediacy of the story. With Melville, however, though the aesthetic once again becomes an absolutely integral part of the films' substance it never threatens to overwhelm them in the same way. Perhaps it is his more subdued, meticulous and more than a little foreboding aesthetic, or perhaps it is simply his more organized and much less frantic sense of pace, but I find Melville, much more so than Godard, to be in complete command of his own aesthetic and so better suited to simply tell a story.

L'Armée des ombres (Army of Shadows) is Jean-Pierre Melville's film about the French Resistance during World War II. Sombre, pessimistic, and filled with a sense of inescapable and predestined resolution, L'Armée is by turns both heartless and sympathetic, both convinced and morally ambivalent. With blue and gray eyes (the film's dominant colour palette) it looks deeply into the moral ambiguity of both war and resistance -- and into the actions that both seem to demand -- but it seems to always refuse us the opportunity either to disengage entirely or identify completely with its characters and their actions. Though the narrative often picks up the stories of other resistance member's as well, L'Armée primarily follows Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura), a high-ranking member of the French Resistance.  Unlike the grand war films -- the storm the beach, rescue the prisoners, defeat the enemy type of films -- L'Armée is a very subdued affair, muted in tone and scope, and muted, one might say, in its depiction of the heroic figure.  The film's characters are not the young and the reckless soldiers and freedom fighter idealists that often accompany war films; they are hardened, professional, dedicated and appear both worn out and morally tired. Melville's resistance members have more in common with the type of characters we would normally associate with crime or gangster films -- like Melville's own Le Cercle Rouge (1970) -- rather than with war films: they are cool, aloof and detached; they go about their business in silent resignation, poised for sacrifice. In not glamourizing his subject, Melville humanizes it.

When Steven Spielberg was trying to create a sense of moral fatigue in Saving Private Ryan he was only faintly approximating what Melville is able to accomplish in L'Armée des ombres almost thirty years earlier. But while Spielberg allowed Ryan to slide across the line from moral fatigue to thinly veiled nihilism and into a faint disgust for its subject, Melville never lets L'Armée slump into such a relaxed posture. The resistance may be facing a hopeless battle, and they may know it, but neither they nor the film ever suggest that this is a pointless battle. The moral question that haunts the film is not "should we fight?" but "how should we fight?" which seems to me to be a much more relevant question, both in terms of WWII and present conflicts.  So often war films -- especially those of the high-brow variety -- contemptuously dismiss the necessity of war, as if WWII could have been avoided if we all had developed of more liberal understanding of the world; so often war films -- especially those of low-brow variety -- blindly grope about for an often false binary structure and an easy rhetoric of good versus evil.  L'Armée des ombres, more mature than either of those types of films, navigates between the two without really compromising either.  It's a rather remarkable fusion of pessimism and conviction.  One might call it realism, I suppose.  I call it strong filmmaking.  

1 comment:

Nevis said...

Never heard of this...may have to pick it up..