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FILM: Army of Shadows (1969)

“Bad memories welcome nonetheless, you are my distant youth”

Seen in white lettering on a black screen at the film’s outset this quotation from the French dramatist and novelist Georges Courteline foretells all that is to come in Army of Shadows (L’Armée des ombres), a brand new 4K restoration of which was released on June 4th this year. The release follows the film’s inclusion in the ‘Cannes Classic’ strand at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival.

The ensuing opening scene bears uncomfortable witness to the sight and sound of a column of Nazi soldiers as they emerge into view beside the Arc de Triomphe, the great symbol of French patriotism. They then proceed to march down the Champs-Élysées, their footfall and accompanying marching band becoming ever louder, ever more ominous.

Shot at 6 o’clock in the morning, this is surely one of the greatest, most unsettling opening sequences in cinematic history – up there with the single take, tracking shot at the beginning of Orson WellesTouch of Evil – and one for which the film’s director had to first obtain government approval as actors in German uniforms were banned from the Champs-Élysées.

Some two hours and 15 minutes later, the film’s four remaining French resistance fighters are seen driving towards this same Parisienne monument and an uncertain future. What transpires in the interim is cold, grey, brutal, occasionally beautiful, but consistently bleak. It is a story of stoic heroism, ideological allegiance, unspoken camaraderie, betrayal, and vengeance.

Set in 1942 during World War II, Army of Shadows is written and directed by the French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Melville. Adapted from Joseph Kessel’s 1943 book of the same name, it is based upon the author’s experiences as a member of the French Resistance but also draws upon Melville’s own history with the same movement. The film stars Lino Ventura, Paul Merisse, Jean-Pierre Cassel, and Simone Signoret.

Army of Shadows follows the lives of a small group of Resistance fighters based in Lyon and Paris and their operations against the Nazi forces occupying their country. Jean-Pierre Melville is not interested here in creating an action movie, choosing instead to focus upon ideals such as loyalty, honour, and the ultimate sacrifice. As such, comparisons are often made with Melville’s famous crime thrillers Le Samourai and Le Cercle Rouge – made on either side of Army of Shadows – in which he also views similar codes of human behaviour as individuals move headlong towards their inevitable destinies with a certain cool, emotional detachment.

Army of Shadows received a poor critical reception upon its initial release in France in 1969. It was not widely distributed in the UK until the late 1970s or in the US until 2006 when an earlier restoration of the film was released. But now 55 years having first been seen Army of Shadows is rightly regarded as a cinematic classic and what is probably Jean-Pierre Melville’s magnum opus.

The new 4K restoration of Army of Shadows comes complete with brand-new extras and is the newest addition to the ever-expanding Vintage World Cinema collection from STUDIOCANAL

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