Around 1971 Jean-Pierre Melville said, “I sometimes read (I am thinking of the reviews after Le Samourai and Army of Shadows), ‘Melville is being Bressonian.’ I’m sorry, but it’s Bresson who has always been Melvillian.”
Melville’s assertion—echoed by critic Andre Bazin and allegedly by Robert Bresson himself—may seem startling. Melville is best known for his eight noir features, all of them stylish and artificial in a way that seems utterly foreign to the more physical and neorealistic surfaces of Bresson’s work. But these differences are ultimately superficial. What the two filmmakers have in common is much more important: the styles, themes, and philosophical positions of both can be traced directly to their experiences during World War II.
Bresson spent nine months in a German internment camp in 1940-’41, before the occupation of France, and his imprisonment is alluded to in one of his greatest films, A Man Escaped (1956). Melville, born Jean-Pierre Grumbach, joined the resistance in the early 40s—changing his Jewish surname to Cartier and then Melville in homage to Herman Melville—and three of his 13 features, all made after the war, deal with the German occupation. The Silence of the Sea, from 1948, was his first feature, and Leon Morin, Priest, from 1961, was his biggest commercial success. But Army of Shadows, from 1969, is his only film about the resistance. It’s now opening in the U.S. for the first time and playing here at the Music Box. (This English title is vastly superior to two earlier ones, Army in the Shadows and The Shadow Army, because, as critic J. Hoberman points out, the title’s meaning is literal—all the soldiers in this army are doomed.)
The works of Melville and Bresson both are full of despair, but Army of Shadows is devastating. I didn’t even want to admit at first that it’s a great film, but now I think it may be Melville’s best. Part of me has always resisted the macho stoicism of much of Melville’s work as well as the implied hysteria. I’ve also always preferred his black-and-white features to his more dandyish color ones, but here his use of color is so subdued I almost remember the film in black and white. Its two and a half hours chart the increasingly difficult decisions made by a middle-aged resistance leader named Gerbier (Lino Ventura) and his comrades and their ultimately futile consequences. Among other things, they have to decide whether to assassinate a noble and courageous fellow resistance member who’s been captured and tortured by the gestapo—they don’t know whether she’s been broken or not but want to be sure she won’t be. Torture comes up throughout the film, though Melville refuses to show any of it; instead he focuses on some of the results, which are grisly enough.
Army of Shadows is based on a novel of the same title by Joseph Kessel (also the author of the source novel for Luis Bunuel’s very different Belle de Jour), which Melville first read in 1943 and which is said to be far more optimistic than the film. Like other features of his, it suggests that the extreme solitude of most of its characters can be explained by secret wounds—also a theme of one of his favorite movies, which he reportedly saw dozens of times, The Asphalt Jungle. It’s tempting to speculate on the biographical basis for this focus. Unlike Bresson, who kept much of his life concealed from public scrutiny, Melville was something of an exhibitionist who projected an invented persona—another way of hiding. (A record of this persona is the novelist Parvulesco in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless, which Melville played and acknowledged was himself.)
Melville’s oeuvre teems with subtexts, and the primary one in Army of Shadows may well be the Holocaust. The deepest psychic wound of some Jews who survived the Holocaust is the guilt over being spared while so many others were not, and, with the possible exception of Shoah (1985), this film seems to embody that metaphysical defeatism more than any other I can think of. The director of Shoah, Claude Lanzmann (also the editor of Les Temps Modernes, the magazine founded in 1945 by Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir), grew up in the shadow of existentialism—as did Melville, who moved in some of the same circles. (Juliette Greco, the official chanteuse of the existentialists, was a friend of Melville’s and starred in his third feature.) The existentialists accepted the necessity of making difficult choices, and that necessity is what makes this evocation of the Holocaust vastly superior to Schindler’s List, which comforts rather than disturbs. That necessity also explains why so much of the suspense in Army of Shadows, as in the best movies of Hitchcock, is inflected by moral conflict.
I had trouble reconciling the realism of Army of Shadows with the mannerism of Melville’s noirs. But then I came across a review Dave Kehr wrote for the Reader in 1982 of The Silence of the Sea and Bob le Flambeur (1955), Melville’s first noir: “Much of Melville’s work hangs on a paradox: in silent self-containment there is certainty, strength, and integrity, but also a kind of death; when the silence is broken—as it must be broken—life and emotion enter, only to destroy completely. Melville’s films are about the violation of closed worlds, a violation both necessary and fatal.” Whether or not Kehr saw Army of Shadows before writing this, he perfectly captures what binds Melville’s noirs to his films about the war.
Kehr’s terms are abstract and metaphysical, but part of what’s so devastating about Army of Shadows is how physically we respond to the terrible decisions faced by the resistance fighters. In the case of one fighter, the previously mentioned noble and courageous one, powerfully played by Simone Signoret, we witness one of the worst. Signoret’s character has kept her underground activities a secret even from her husband and her daughter, and though Gerbier advises her to stop carrying a photograph of her daughter, we discover that she hasn’t when the gestapo officers find it and threaten to force her daughter into prostitution if she doesn’t talk. In Kehr’s terms, the mother’s photo becomes a necessary and fatal violation of the closed world of the resistance.