“Army of Shadows” – Chris Luedtke

Got two hours and twenty-five minutes to kill? Good, because I’ve got an assignment for you: watch Jean-Pierre Melville’s Army of Shadows, and tell me what I missed. Army of Shadows is the story of a French underground resistance group trying to help with the war against the Nazis. I’ve been reading up on why this is regarded as such a great film, but I don’t see what the other critics are seeing. It’s good, yes, haunting even, but it’s no masterpiece.

Army of Shadows bathes itself in dark themes and tragic heroism, which work well for the entire flick and are what pulled me through to the end. I have to give it credit for this. No matter what, characters are constantly making decisions that they don’t want to follow through on, while trying to keep their vision clear on why they’re doing this. The atmosphere that they carry by just being onscreen is enough to turn the skies grey on a sunny day. Interrogations are often nasty, even though not much is shown, and while Melville could have bathed the film in blood a few times, he resorts more often to the “what you cannot see is more frightening” technique. All the more I can say on this is that the traitor scene will stay with you into your nightmares.

Once again, Melville shows how he can bring out much without using words. Much of the film is quiet, which brings out large amounts of tension, and a lot of the film relies upon background noises to bring out the mood even more. I still can’t credit the traitor scene enough here; it is easily the most tense when everyone stops talking. Prolonged stares add to this as well. Going back and forth between enemy staredowns adds new layers to the scenes.

Characterization also couldn’t be much better. Their inability to cope with some of their missions in the beginning shows their new status in the spy network, but as the movie progresses, they begin to accept their occupations. This adds a fatalist aspect to the whole deal, and while it makes all the characters less human, it makes them more interesting.

So what could possibly be wrong with this after all that praise? Well, the story is the ultimate failure. While Melville has crafted some memorable scenes, ambience, and characters, the story just begs for justifications. Why did she just get out of the car? Where did this scene come from, and why does it feel insignificant even after it’s over? There is very little introduction and eventually assumptions must be made. I came to a point where I just couldn’t understand the story anymore, and apathy towards this began to sink in. It sucks to see something like this happen when everything else is just so damn good.

I don’t discourage anyone from seeing this; rather, I encourage everyone to see it. The tense atmosphere and tragic figures are top-notch and not to be missed. Melville calls it his most important film because he had some World War II experiences. It’s certainly a good film, but it’s long and often feels drawn out, making it a less fulfilling experience than it should be.

Rating: ★★★☆

-Chris Luedtke


Read A.J. Hakari’s Army of Shadows review here.

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