ScreeningNotes’s review published on Letterboxd :
"Unhappy memories! Yet I welcome you, for you are my long lost youth.”
It's hard to feel I have anything definitive to say about so monumental a movie on first viewing. The easiest thing to point out about it is the tragedy of its historical circumstances: it was one of Melville's most personal films, as he was himself a fighter in the French Resistance during the Nazi occupation in World War II, but he didn't live to see his film receive the appreciation it deserved. It was panned by the cahiers du cinema and never made it to the U.S. until 2006, at which point Melville had passed and his film had been critically re-evaluated.
The reason for its initial rejection among French critics is an interesting way into the film itself. It was perceived as a Gaullist film with oversimplified politics, which is ironic considering that for me its politics are its strongest suit. As a movie about the French Resistance, the résistants at the heart of it are obviously somewhat heroic figures—while not infallible or omnipotent, they're generally seen to be doing the right thing—but their efforts are undermined at every turn by the Nazis, by informants in their ranks, and even by their own failures. If there's one word to describe the politics of this film, it's "futility."
This moral ambiguity, this uncertainty whether doing the right thing will ever actually make a difference, is also reflected in an ambiguity and uncertainty at almost every level of the film. Narratively, it's often uncertain not only whether what they're doing matters, but even what they're doing at all. They're captured and forced to work with people they don't know, and this question of who's a collaborator or who's an informant determines almost every interaction in the film. The protagonist Phillipe Gerbier escapes from a Nazi prison camp into a barber shop, and immediately he must deal with the question of the barber's political allegiance.
The visual aesthetic of the film also manifests this ambiguity. There are some scenes in here that are almost completely black, illustrating both the idea of an army literally occupying the shadows, as well as the idea that they can't see who the people around them really are, they can't see their political allegiances. This darkness is intelligently contrasted with scenes shot outside in bright sun or inside under harsh lights, but even here, when the visual palette becomes more balanced, the light only shows more clearly the potential for hardship. The light only highlights the corners still dark with shadow.
This balancing act is also felt in the pacing of the film. The two other films I felt this was most similar to were The Lives of Others and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: Army of Shadows is a film characterized by stillness, but the quiet scenes are complemented by explosive ones that aren't quite action scenes but have a similar excitement to them. These thrills are enhanced by the stillness surrounding them, creating a juxtaposition for the occasional explosions; but these moments of action also add tension to the quieter scenes by creating a palpable tension around the fact that you never know when they might explode again.
This is the kind of film that sent me immediately on a mission to learn more about it. I'm not one to understand plots easily the first time through a film, so I read through a thorough plot outline as well as the booklet accompanying the Criterion version of the film, and then I rewatched the film with audio commentary (I won't log this commentary separately, but suffice it to say it's one of the best I've listened to in a while). It's an incredibly rich experience and one I'd easily recommend to anyone willing to wade through a film even when it's so drenched in fatalism.
"[I]n the worst of circumstances, human beings can act with courage and honor, but… there is a larger tragedy in the fact that war is the realm in which such heroism comes into being."