In Review: Army of Shadows on Blu-ray

by Andrew Latimer on 30/04/2013


Jean-Pierre Melville’s Army of Shadows (L’armée des ombres, 1969) always seems to be a prime candidate for revival. It’s been repackaged and padded out, stuffed into box sets and now updated into crystal-clear high-definition by StudioCanal. It’s surprising this film, based on Joseph Kessel’s original novel, continues to slip under the radar of mass critical praise, as if lurking in the darkness with the same muted jeopardy implied in its title.

Most audiences will be familiar with Melville’s noir background, perfected throughout the days of Le Doulos (1962), Le Samourai (1967) and Le Cercle Rouge (1970). He re-energised the genre by mingling experimental camera techniques with gangster narratives that in turn electrified Godard and other Nouvelle Vague auteurs across Europe. With Army of Shadows, we find his menacing tone transposed to Occupied France during the Second World War, as we follow an underground Resistance cell led by Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura).

There are no spectacular car chases or inner-city bombardments here: Melville’s delivery comes more silently. Long, pensive shots ramp up the tension of a single glance or hand gesture. The calm before the storm that characterised much of the war’s mood is gorgeously harmonised by Melville; his personal experience with the Resistance clearly informed his ability to evoke danger and the narrow escapes of Gerbier are always nail-bitingly close without being exaggerated.

Melville’s characters adopt the shadows in the same way Europe endured in darkness. These are men and women that fight for a political imperative that outweighs their own survival. We don’t have to agree with the Gaullist sympathies of Melville’s philosophy, but he doesn’t force us to. The reason his characters remain on the margins of our empathy is so that we choose to support or challenge them – a master stroke of moral ambivalence.

This is refined, restrained film-making of soaring quality. Even without the DVD’s renewed subtitles, Army of Shadows is still a work of tremendous political might today, as stunningly and fiercely ideological as it is poetic.

Andrew has awarded Army of Shadows five Torches of Truth

5 torches rating

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