Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Army of Shadows

Army of Shadows is a French film directed by Jean Pierre Melville famous for his stylish and philosophical gangster movies and inspiring Godard, Tarantino and other filmmakers. He even makes a cameo appearance in Breathless and so does "uncle Bob", alluding to the titular character in his movie Bob le Flambeur. Army of Shadows was released in 1969 but has found its way into the American theatres just now! Well, the print is restored so I guess it looks as good as it would have looked then.

It is about a group of people, all members of the underground French resistance, who fought against the Nazi occupation in the second world war. The subject sounds familiar but the way Melville handles the story is really something unique. At least I have never seen any thing like this before. One thing is clear from the very beginning though, this is not an anti-war or a pacifist film. Melville himself fought with the resistance and so did the novelist on whose novel the film is based on and he obviously thought the war against the occupation was just and the characters who participated in it were all heroic. But his idea of "heroism" is so radically different from what we generally assume, at least in the movies, that it really takes time to understand what is really going on. For example, throughout most of the film there is hardly any dialogue, characters mostly talk to themselves in detached voiceover. There is not much of action, I mean "any" action, much less of a "heroic" action and a feeling of an extreme melancholy fatalism always hangs in the air. The palette is wintry, the mood is sombre, and everything reminds you of that Beckett saying, "I can't go on, I will go on". (It is also worth noting that Beckett, one of the greatest pessimists ever, the great poet of futility, also fought with the resistance.) It is like all those heroes are so sure of ultimately futility of their endeavour and yet they can't help but go on. Something like the philosophy in the Gita.

The style of this film reminded me of the experience I had of watching films by Robert Bresson, specially A Man Escaped. Half way through that film I started wondering what exactly the film was all about. Just a convict trying to escape and Bresson recording his persevering attempts with painstaking patience? And then in the end it suddenly dawns that it is not really about escaping from the prison at all, everything automatically takes a deeper meaning. Army of Shadows is a little less extreme than Bresson films but the feeling at the end is the same. It is not just a war against the nazis and it is not even about winning the war, it is about doing what you got to do. It is only when the film ends with a shattering postscript that you understand this. Excellent film though it might leave you sad but it is the kind of sadness worth nurturing...

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