Jean-Pierre Melville, born Grumbach, was a member of the Resistance during the Occupation of France. Three wonderful films of his address this period during the Second World War: The Silence of the Sea (1947), Leon Morin, Priest (1961) and L’armée des ombres—although his film noirs also refer, symbolically, to the Resistance. Joseph Kessel, the author of the novel on which the film is based, was also a member of the Resistance.
This is a nuts-and-bolts film, rigorously detailing Resistance activities, including planning sessions, brutal interrogations, and executions, in which endlessly lonely, solemn participants, almost sleepwalking in the oppressive atmosphere of the times (to which the film’s repressed tenor is correlative), often seem divided from their own humanity as well as their nation, which they are relentlessly trying to reclaim and restore—although at times they also seem to be all mission, without memory of motive. A dark, somber film much of which unfolds in hidden, confined spaces, it is as psychological as historical. Its soldiering civilians in constant fear of death might pass for villains in another film. This is an unvarnished look at the French Resistance, and one doesn’t doubt for a moment its authenticity.
The protagonist is one of the movement’s leaders, but the most unforgettable character is Mathilde, played beautifully by Simone Signoret. A loyal, committed member, she finds herself between a rock and a hard place courtesy of the Gestapo, which threatens her with her teenaged daughter’s consignment to a Polish brothel unless she betrays the cause. Like other traitors, she is dispatched—one of the most emotionally bleeding moments in cinema.
There’s no question as to what must be done with her. There is endless question, though, whether the world can ever be made right after it’s done.
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