We kick off a new year with film #22 in the World War II Marathon!
Adaptation By: Jean-Pierre Melville
Directed By: Jean-Pierre Melville
The life of a soldier isn’t a life that many people want. The life of a soldier during war time is a life that almost no one wants. Yet, there is another life, a life that may even be worse than that of a soldier in a time of war, the life of a resistance fighter. When I say resistance fighter I’m not speaking of the popular fictionalized version, the man/woman who goes underground and with numerous comrades forms a military type army striking against the evil forces aligned against them. The resistance fighters we see in L’armée Des Ombres are more real, they are the men and women forced to live a normal life while trying to help a country and people that can no longer help itself.
Living the dual life of a true resistance fighter is a daunting task, perhaps even a task so daunting that those of us who have not lived it can’t truly appreciate it no matter how many works of art try to show us that life. There is one scene in particular that for me highlights the harshness that is the life of the resistance fighter in Jean-Pierre Melville’s L’armée Des Ombres. Philippe is in London trying to seek shelter from a bombing raid and he stumbles upon a club occupied by soldiers. He is a soldier just like they are, yet as he stands there feeling and looking out of place it becomes obvious to us and to Philippe that he doesn’t belong with these men and women. A resistance fighter isn’t a soldier, they risk their life just the same but they can’t let their guard down, they can’t be recognized, they can’t for one second celebrate a victory. It is harsh, but a resistance fighter spends every waking moment fighting for the cause and hoping that the next minute won’t be the minute when they are found out and killed.
Melville is easily able to get the reality of the resistance fighter across through his wonderful actors as well as his staccato rhythm of long stretches of silence broken up by a sudden burst of action, violence or emotion. L’armée Des Ombres has a sweeping quality to it, Melville’s camera spends the time to make sure we know our surroundings in every scene. This mimics the constant surveying a resistance fighter must partake in, while the sudden burst of activity to take us out of the sweeps mimic the sudden life of the resistance fighter. There are plenty of moments in L’armée Des Ombres where you can’t help but feel safe, and as soon as you fall into the sense of warmth and protection Melville makes sure to pull you right out of it and remind you that resistance fighters don’t have the luxury of a safe, warm place.
One last area I would like to touch on is that of the visuals. For the most part the visuals are rather staid and unremarkable, but I do believe this was done on purpose. I know that Melville has stated he did not want to make a realistic film, but rather one of real emotion and a real state of mind. In trying to do this Melville did create a realistic looking film, the visuals never stray to the overdone or overblown, and it’s important that they don’t because if they did the tone of the film would be ruined. Still, in this stripped down reality Melville finds a way for his visuals to create emotion in the audience and to mirror the plight of his characters. Think about how France looks during L’armée Des Ombres for second. It’s not bombed out like you would think, it is, just like the resistance fighters, a country living in duality, forced to look normal while hiding an underbelly at war.
L’armée Des Ombres is only my second Melville film, but he is already on a path to becoming one of my favorite directors. There is a steady hand behind the production of this film, one that isn’t concerned with the heroics of war but the reality of war. L’armée Des Ombres isn’t a fast film by any means, nor is it a typical thriller, but it is a taut film that never feels long and is thrilling to its very core. If you’ve seen other Melville and haven’t yet seen L’armée Des Ombres then get on it, and if you are even attempting to follow along with this marathon then get on L’armée Des Ombres as soon as you can, you need to feel the sudden burst of reality that is L’armée Des Ombres.