L’Armée du Crime

November 1, 2009


Because everything looks better in French. (See: my blog name.)

I should admit up-front having a lot of trouble sitting through war movies, even when they promise an interesting philosophical exploration of conflict. I’m a pacifist, and my built in bias is that the fighting is just stupid and the people aren’t making the right choice. It colors the way I perceive the actions of the characters, and makes it hard for me to accept the premises of a lot of war movies; ie., this stuff is inevitable and noble and those fighting were just doing what they had to. There, I said it. This movie tried hard, but in the end succumbed to these same problems for me.

But first, a little history lesson:

Most of you will be aware of the French Resistance in WWII, but may not be aware that the resistance was split into at least two distinct parts: The Gaullists (led, incidentally, by Charles de Gaulle. Who’da thunk?) and the Partizans. (Yes, Communists.) This movie is concerned about the actions of the latter group, and their movements during the occupation of Paris. The movie moves more or less chronologically, starting after the Germans have been in town a while, and ending in 1944. The start is intentionally disjointed, as the various activists who will eventually make up the partizan cell act independently of each other to disrupt Nazi activity in Paris. Many of these young Communists are shown to be acting increasingly brashly, and finally the Communist powers-that-be in France decide that someone must find a way to take control of them and organize them into a formal cell– if for no other reason than the direct their rage.

As subtext we see that many of these partizans are Jewish and have had to flee the Nazis elsewhere in Europe, and during this time the Nazis stage several round-ups making family members and friends disappear. Most of the partizans are shown as knowing the fate that waited for their loved ones at the end of the deportation trains, even if others around them didn’t.

A further, more fascinating subtext for me, was the “drafting” of Missak Manouchian as the leader of the cell. A poet who had fled Turkish death squads as a young man, Manouchian is content with being an ideological voice for the partizan movement, but is reluctant to kill. He pushes his party higher-ups on his convictions, but is told he will be cut loose if he doesn’t cooperate. The film sets the choice to kill or not as a huge existential question, but for all the time he spends agonizing over it on screen, you could be forgiven for thinking he was deciding whether or not to get a dog. In fairness, the final choice to commit murder comes in the act of an operation, and I suspect that the depiction is fairly true to life. But the only other onscreen consideration of his dilemma is a cigarette on the balcony at night, and a post-operation tear.

The film could have turned into a referendum on the conscience of a police officer, Inspector Pujol, as well. Instead, after showing him, rightly, disturbed at scenes of torture committed upon men he’d helped capture, the film conveniently drops any real idea of the man having much honor at all. Late in the film he’s depicted attempting to save one of the members of the cell, but it’s so that he can keep having sex with a friend of the partizan and not for any noble reason that he does this.

Finally, I was surprised at the nuance shown toward the Communists in the film. Obviously the partizans are the protagonists and they’ll be shown in as positive a light as is possible when killing people in cold blood, but the mostly shadowy upper-echelons of the party are portrayed by a single, bloodthirsty contact who spits and snarls at Manouchian’s “ethics” when he expresses reluctance to kill. Furthermore, the film shows ideological splits within Communism, as one character declares “I’d never have a drink with a Stalinist.”

Ultimately, the film doesn’t pursue the implications of violence with the force that it pursues the the implications of occupation in France and the extent that Nazi collaborators had worked their way into the infrastructure of France. For my money, L’Armée des Ombres is a much better film on French Resistance groups. Although, I can’t think of many film makers who could step into Jean-Pierre Melville’s aviators and cowboy hat. If it opens in the US it’s probably worth your time, but I was a little disappointed.


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