It is my dream to one day see a film in France -- preferably though not necessarily at Cannes -- for French audiences are famously unhesitant about voicing their opinions. At the 1939 debut of Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game (which I finally saw this week for the first time), the premiere crowd threw chairs at the screen, with one patron even attempting to set the theater ablaze. Even with our surplus of rabid nerd hordes, American audiences are relatively timid; the only times I have witnessed near-riots and mass-exits in a movie theater occurred during the last four films of Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love, There Will Be Blood). What's ironic about Anderson (who may be, not incidentally, my favorite contemporary filmmaker) is he's not out to provoke anyone; he is endearingly naive enough to believe that audiences have the same patience, fortitude and adventurousness now that they did in the 70s -- like Billy Pilgrim, unstuck in time.
Jean-Pierre Melville's extraordinary Army of Shadows debuted in 1969, the same year Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five was published: like Vonnegut's novel, Melville's film is an uncompromising depiction of the cost of war on not only human lives but also human conscience; also like Vonnegut, Melville uses a Good War, a Just War as an unsettling mise-en-scene with which to explore this theme. Yet whereas Slaughterhouse-Five resonated in the United States, particularly among American youth, Army of Shadows was received with only slightly less hostility in France than The Rules of the Game thirty years earlier. A stark docudrama about the French Resistance in World War II, and based largely on the director's actual experiences, Army of Shadows must have touched quite a nerve in its refusal to glamorize the actions of its characters, to paint the struggle with Germany in black-and-white. A somewhat similar reaction greeted Louis Malle's autobiographical 1987 Au Revoir les Enfants, which some took as an indictment of French anti-Semitism and Nazi collaboration. Which may be true. Look closer, though, and it's clear that Melville -- like Malle -- is also indicting himself.
Occupying the tenuous center of Army of Shadows is Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura), a sardonic, middle-aged Resistance leader whom we first meet in a POW camp in 1942 Vichy France. Through terse voiceovers, we hear the camp commandant size up Gerbier ("Sardonic and ironic attitude....suspected of Gaullist sympathies"), then Gerbier himself swiftly discern the divisions and loyalties among prisoners in the camp. Gerbier recruits a younger inmate for an escape attempt, which transpires not in the camp like they (and we) expect, but in a Vichy headquarters. It's not hard to see where Tarantino learned how to tease out the suspense of a scene while watching Gerbier wait for what seems an eternity before stabbing a guard in the throat. Even more shocking than this sudden act of violence is learning that the older man used his younger compatriot as a diversion to aid his own escape.
Loyalties shift constantly throughout the film, as Melville gradually broadens his perspective to include other members of the Resistance. A pair of lieutenants, Le Masque (Claude Mann) and Le Bison (Christian Barbier), are unwilling accomplices in a plot to assassinate a traitor in their midst. One protests that he's never killed a man before; Gerbier replies matter-of-factly, "Neither have we; isn't it obvious?" Later, their group attempts a daring rescue of a colleague held captive in a Nazi occupied hospital. The mission is led by the hard-shelled Mathilde (an unforgettable Simone Signoret): disguised as aid workers, she and her team drive an ambulance straight into the lion's den, and the inexorable tension builds the sequence into one of those masterful set-pieces that is the hallmark of all classic films.
Army of Shadows finally premiered in the United States a mere four years ago, where it received ecstatic reviews. (Glenn Kenny observed -- correctly, in my view -- that for all the qualities of the at-the-time recently released Munich, Melville "leaves Spielberg's film in the dust in the moral-ambiguity department.") Yet it's not hard to surmise that the director's clear-eyed uncertainty, so widely admired today, is precisely what troubled audiences in his homeland three decades earlier. One character, captured by the Germans, is used for sport by being set loose along with other prisoners in a mad dash for freedom through a barrage of machine-gun fire. At first he vows to stay still, but soon fear gets the better of him and he bursts into a sprint. Later he curses his cowardice, but Melville makes his actions wholly identifiable, more universal than perhaps many of us would care to admit. Army of Shadows has all the earmarks of a masterpiece: utterly fixed in the details of its era, yet thrillingly unstuck in time.
There is a similar scene to the aforementioned in Mel Gibson's Apocalypto, where the movie's protagonist outruns his bloodthirsty Mayan captors by dodging a hail of javelins. It's hard for me to watch this scene without hearing Peter Falk from The In-Laws shout, "Serpentine! Serpentine!" not least of which because Gibson, who used to possess a puckish sense of humor, has become monotonously serious about his artistic objectives, both behind the camera and before it. Moreover, his off-screen antics have only added to the difficulty of separating the man from his work.
I saw Edge of Darkness, Mad Mel's first starring role in eight years, on DVD a few days before his private self once again reared its ugly head, but I found the film a vile mess entirely on its own terms. A Mel Gibson plot is like a grittier version of a typical Harrison Ford storyline: his family isn't merely in danger, they're usually kidnapped, tortured, even killed. In this instance, his Boston homicide detective's grownup daughter runs afoul of some shady corporate types, and he wreaks vengeance. Steven Soderbergh used virtually the same outline in The Limey to show how his central killer pulls together the shards of the past on his quest for revenge, only to find himself among the culpable. No such silly nuances to be found in Edge of Darkness, however; what you see is what you get, with on-the-nose casting (Danny Huston an a white-collar snake, Jay O. Sanders as a lily-livered sellout) driving home the point.
A few critics who should have known better gave this kind reviews, focusing their praise mainly on the sure-footed direction of Martin Campbell (The Mask of Zorro, Casino Royale). Granted, Campbell's economy of movement is as sharp as ever: through ingenious editing and framing, he sets up a handful of genuine shocks; and he stages the violence in sudden, cathartic bursts. But nothing can disguise the withered human being at the center of this passion play (though it should be amusing in the coming days and weeks to see apologists like Armond White and Danny Glover try). Gibson's acting is adequate; in a sense, he's still a commanding presence. Yet he's also a black hole, one I don't care to ever see again. "You know you deserve this," he snarls at a bad guy during the bloody climax (the complete antithesis of Jean-Pierre Melville's worldview). A pity Gibson doesn't realize that what his audience deserves is better movies.