Thursday, September 12, 2013
Army of Shadows - dir. Jean-Pierre Melville, 1969. Lincoln Center.
A film about a Gaullist French Resistance cell, circa 1942. A hard, gritty tale that begins in media res and which ends long before the end of the German Occupation.
I saw this film as part of "An Evening with Pierre Lhomme" at Lincoln Center. Lhomme was the cinematographer of Army of Shadows, and he is best known as the collaborator of the New Wave documentarian Chris Marker. I can't even begin to go into Army of Shadows. It's too big, too heavy. I will gloss.
The thing you have to say is that this came out in France in 1969, four months after the resignation of Charles de Gualle, and that it was so unanimously hated by French critics for being a flag-waving Gaullist piece of shit that it went undistributed in America until a restoration in 2006. People are very apologetic about this now. They--critics, Lhomme himself during the Q&A after the film--all say that it was a matter of bad timing: it's a masterpiece that was poorly received in its time because it happened to clash with the political climate in France.
That is a total cop out. Films are historical documents, and they should be treated as such. Especially films about history, especially about recent history, especially about recent history which is contested, especially when said contest is politically charged in the present. In no fucking way is de Gaulle and the religious myth of the Resistance that served as a continual source of legitimation for his rule in anyway separable from the political climate in France in 1969. Melville doesn't get a pass just because he was in the Resistance (even though it makes him a better man than I or most people will ever be).
And this film has got a huge fucking boner for de Gaulle. So huge, de Gaulle himself, or rather an actor playing him, actually shows up in a scene, his face tastefully obscured by shadow ("You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above..."), to pin a medal on one of the protagonists. One character says that, during a period of privation, what kept him going was his love for the Leader. The Gaullist protagonists are a fictionalized Greatest Hits compilation of Resistance heroes but Communists and left-wing Catholics--the other major Resistance contingents--are given short shrift: The film starts in a POW camp where our main protagonist is incarcerated with a communist youth and a dying priest whom he refers to as "lost souls." Watching this film in France in 1969 would be like watching a movie in America in 2009 about how George W. Bush really pulled the nation together after 9/11.
I asked Lhomme during the Q&A after the film,whether he thought about the political connotations of the film while he was making it. He said no. He was too close to the work and too preoccupied dealing with the tyrannical Melville to be critical about what he was making. Melville seemed to believe that people had to be unhappy in order to work: He was barely on speaking terms with the lead actor, and he went out of his way stifle the a friendship that began to develop between his two assistant directors. Only after getting some distance from the experience of making the film was Lhomme able to make out its political contours, which left him "disappointed."
Six days after Army of Shadows came out, Max Ophül's The Sorrow and the Pity, a documentary about French collaboration, was released. I have not seen the latter film, but it seems like a necessary corrective. The fact of their near-simultaneous release illustrates why one can't ignore the politics of Army of Shadows just because it's a 'masterpiece.' Indeed, the fact that it is 'masterpiece' makes its politics all the more insulting.
As to the film itself: This is a film about sacrifice. French patriotism rendered with the passion, masochism, and guilt of Catholicism. It is unrelentingly grim. In the whole film only one Nazi dies, but Frenchmen die in scores--some of them snitches who are killed by our protagonists. Signing up for Resistance is signing up for death, for meting it out to
others and preparing yourself to receive it. The cyanide capsule as Communion. Torture is not just something Nazi's do to Resistance fighters in luxury hotels: it is a way of life. A way of life to which one submits, joyfully, in service of a Cause, an Ideal, incarnated in a Great Man whom, we pray, will redeem us.
The dominant color is black. Black, black, black, back, black. Such dark, velvety, pitch-black blacks. The grays are black. The blues are black. The browns are black. The fires are black. Black and blue and brown and gray and a dark marine teal. God, and in that darkness, such bright, luminous lights! When Lhomme was asked, during the Q&A, whether any special chemical treatment was done to achieve this amazing, desaturated palette, he said no. What you see was pretty much just what was in front of the camera, and the film's astonishing color scheme was primarily the work of brilliant costume, set, and art design.
One can see why American critics loved this film so much when it came out here in 2006. It is easier to like a film about a national resistance movement, with its white middle-class heroes, than a Marxist or anti-colonial one. Americans love Big, Important Things, and while Melville is by no means a maker of modest films, this is his Biggest and most Important. There's submarines, skydiving, POW camps, Nazis, National Salvation, and a great bit fucking War. Melville's movies are the essence of cool, and here that coolness leaps out of the Hip into the Historical.
Be Seeing You (À bientôt, j'espère) - dir. Chris Marker, 1968.
Class Struggle (Classe de lutte) - dir. the Medvedkin Group , 1969.
I find that the better a film is, the less I have to say about it. These were two fine, short documentaries about workers' struggles in France. The first was about union activity in a textile factory in Besançon. We see the factory, the protests, and the homes of workers. It is a humane film with a sincere interest in its subjects. There as an emphasis on asking workers to describe the processes by which they had become politically active. There is a strike that wins some minor concessions but mostly fails. The message is that class struggle is a long-term process, a process of learning and subjective transformation. Victors and defeats are both opportunities to learn, and you learn by participation. The workers are no more defeated in this strike than they were victorious in a major strike in 1966 that won them more significant concessions.
The only thing that bothered me about the first film was an interview with a mansplaining worker and his wife. The wife hardly said a word. Her husband kept talking for her. Marker did not really do much about it. This was corrected by the second short, which was primarily about the wife. She was radicalized in the interim between films and became a union leader. She was punished by management, which tried to isolate her and push her out by constantly reassigning her to various thankless, tedious, solitary jobs in the factory. She thinks about leaving to find better work elsewhere, but decides she is too dedicated to her fellow workers to give up the fight. The second film was made the Medvedkinn Group, a collective of film technicians and factory workers overseen by Marker. The credits indicate some unspecified involvement of Godard and Joris Ivens.
Pierre Lhomme proved to be charming, intelligent, thoughtful, and lovely man during the Q&A. He seemed pleased to be there, to share his thoughts and stories. He was generous to the intelligence of questioners, even when the questions were poor, and tried hard to make sure he's answered the question. When asked questions that off-topic, he resisted in a way that turned the attention
on himself--"But that is a different world! It is hard for me think
about that!" He had a fatherly ability to deal with patiently curious young people. He would often struggle to find the correct English words to express what he wanted to say, and every single time the words he was looking for were cognates of the French words he was thinking.
Lhomme continues to talk about the recently deceased Chris Marker in the present tense, and described his relationship with him as one of the most important in his life. Marker, he said, really cared about the people whom he filmed. When a questioner stated in passing that Lhomme was not associated with the New Wave "per se," The strongest statement Lhomme made that night was that the association of the term "New Wave" with only five or six directors is "the biggest, fattest lie" in film. For him the New Wave was a historical moment during which dozens of directors came of age, extending and expressing in cinema the larger generational, cultural, and political transformation of French society. Refreshingly, he was neither apologetic nor despairing about what had become of left-wing movements of that time. "All the dreams of this period remain dreams," he said, "but I think it was fascinating, is fascinating: the human being."