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French Cinema

L’armée des ombres (France 1969)

Jean-Pierre Melville’s L’armée des ombres (Army in the Shadows) – what a movie! I love Melville and this is a digital restoration by a French archive of a 1969 film. The colours are muted and the film is relatively slowly paced over 145 mins. But Melville is in complete control. I wish I could think of easy ways to introduce this kind of filmmaking to younger audiences. There are no car chases and little direct conflict in this story about the French resistance, mostly based on Joseph Kessel’s novel, but also on Melville’s own wartime experience. The action as such comprises an escape from custody, a reluctant execution, another escape from a firing squad and a ‘mercy’ assassination. Between these dramatic highs are long periods of tension building,with marvellous performances by the likes of Lino Ventura and Simone Signoret.

Melville is an expressionist rather than a ‘realist’, but I was convinced of the ‘reality’ of the situations that faced the resistance fighters. I particularly enjoyed Lino Ventura’s flight back to France from London. Prepared to jump from an RAF plane with his parachute harness over his overcoat and suit, our hero has his glasses firmly taped to his forehead with elastoplast. It’s those touches of humanity that make this a great film.

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