In Jean-Pierre Melville's Army of Shadows the constant threat of a storm hangs over weary France. The skies are blanketed in low-hanging grey clouds, windows ice over and roads are slushy with fresh mud. Drab rooms are populated with tight-lipped people whose faces are taut, strained with the pressure of impending violence. Nazis have taken over the large French country estates, emptied drawing rooms of their furniture and turned them into torture chambers.
On the street, people meet one another's gaze with barely registered questions. Are you with us or against us? Can you be trusted? At the start of the film, Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura) has been captured and is being transported to a Vichy camp. It is bitter cold, but he remains stoic, intractable, inscrutable. His guards stop off to run errands on the way to the prison. Cruelty and oppression have become routine. When Gerbier arrives at the camp he is evaluated by the commandant, whose internal monologue is the first voice we hear. He lists the prisoner's character traits and vacillates between using a "carrot" or "stick" on his new charge.
Later Gerbier escapes and rejoins the resistance, helping shield British and Canadian pilots as they land on the Mediterranean coast. The men and women of the Resistance are not dashing. They do not charge about heroically getting the best of their enemy. They struggle under an oppressor that has colored the whole world an army green drab and made every neighbor into a potential enemy or informant.
Even though the members of Gerbier's small cell, Felix, Le Bison, Le Masque and most of all Mathilde have proven themselves trustworthy, they never let their guard down with one another. It is as though they have all forgotten how to exhale. They battle on against the Nazis, but the Nazis have almost completely stamped out hope. In one scene, Mathilde (Simone Signoret) holds Gerbier's hand after rescuing him from a Gestapo "shooting gallery." She swiftly puts her hand in his, silently attempting to calm and reassure him, but then her hand thinks better of the intimacy and shrinks away. Her tenderness, concealed as it is under a tough no-nonsense exterior, will be her undoing.
Army of Shadows is very reminiscent of a Hitchcock film that has been stripped of its Hollywood sheen. The color palette is as painstaking as any of Hitchcock's but the glamour, the luster is missing from the scenery, the story and, most of all, the actors. Army of Shadows is about real people resisting an occupation, it is about tension building without the hope of release. In muffled style and execution, the film reminded me particularly of a scene in Hitchcock's Torn Curtain where Paul Newman and a female agent silently murder a man with their bare hands while a policeman snoops around the yard just outside. In that scene, the only sounds were of muted human struggle. If you have ever wondered what the difference is between "insurgents" and "freedom fighters" or wondered how the occupied feel about their occupiers, go and see Army of Shadows. The film captures the subterranean emotions of occupation, with ordinary people struggling against both an overwhelming oppressor and their own muffled screams of outrage.
Army of Shadows opens Friday, June 23, 2006.