Thursday, January 24, 2008

OCCUPATION. Though I'm an old film nerd, there are a lot of esteemed directors whose works I've completely missed. I'm a little ashamed of it, but I must admit now that I was unfamiliar with Jean-Pierre Melville before tonight, because I've just seen Army of Shadows and can't contain myself.

As you might expect from a film about a French Resistance crew, it is one harrowing, nerve-tearing incident after another. There is no attempt to frame them with an overarching narrative; the men (and one woman) do their jobs, get caught or fail to get caught or escape. Between the exploits there is a patient attention to everyday activity that sustains the tension; when you are fucking with the Nazis, just eating a meal or walking down the street is a prelude to more terror. And the actors observable carry the weight of their occupation, in both senses, at every moment, and their seriousness doesn't get tiresome because it is palpably appropriate. What they're doing is heroic, but there is no lingering over that for effect, and when someone gets emotional it has to be tamped down for the good of the cause. (We get a clue that this will be the method at the beginning, when our hero coolly endures some chatter from a jolly Vichy gendarme. Later, the clasping of a hand is allowed to linger, under extraordinary circumstances, but that too must be put aside.)

Though the heroes are out of uniform, this is one of the best war movies I've ever seen. The two top Resisters' visit to London, where they meet DeGaulle and endure a blitz (and the central character, Gerbier, hitches a ride back to France with the RAF and makes his first parachute jump) gives a sense of the wider conflict within which they operate. This is war seen from deep inside, where the planning is endless and everything can go wrong and one can no longer be interested in what came before or hope too much for what may come afterward. "Struggle" and "conflict" are not conveyed by gritted teeth and flexed muscles but by silent attentiveness to opportunity and the occasional run for freedom or quick, bloody strike (and, in one hair-raising case, the dilemma of killing a man without disturbing the neighbors). The clarity is bracing. It makes Saving Private Ryan look like a soap opera.

I want to see more Melville soon, though my accursed taste for contemporaneity may postpone that so I can see a few more of this year's probably-shitty Oscar nominees.

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