Year Released: 1969
Directed by: Jean-Pierre Melville
Starring: Lino Ventura, Simone Signoret, Jean-Pierre Cassel
(Not Rated, 145 min.)
"Unhappy memories! Yet be welcome, for you are my distant youth." Georges Courteline
A world of bright cold and sweaty fear, bare rooms and shadowy souls fueled only by gritty determination and lonely desperation. It is 1943 in occupied France and you are in the bowels of the Underground.
Jean-Pierre Melville’s masterpiece, a stark and uncompromising portrait of anonymous courage where life and loyalty are snuffed out like candles that betray the darkness, is an eye-opener for anyone born hence. We in these subsequent generations have barely known hardship or deprivation – appetite but not hunger, frustrated desire but never true want – and take our freedom for granted, regarding it like some boring family business started by an unknown relative who stares benevolently down on us from a faded photograph. We accept it and the steady flow of cash it generates with tepid pleasure, and perhaps even a sort of rebellious contempt, possibly wishing to exchange it for something more hip or flamboyant. This film reminds us of its hard won antecedents.
What writer/director Melville called a “retrospective reverie” is based on the 1943 novel by Joseph Kessel. The film was released in 1969 to a luke warm reception in France and even denounced by the certain critics who labeled it “Gaullist,” the socialist leaning country considering that icon to be a sort of embarrassment. Now some 37 years later it is getting a limited debut in America. Thus we have a sort of triple reflection in our cinematic looking glass. In 1943 the fate of France and the entire Western World hung in the balance; 1969 saw a Gallic shrug of indifference to past history, and now what to make of the reaction in 2006?
Well, Army of Shadows must certainly put in check the notion that French courage is an oxymoron, as the film radiates valor, not the flashy type of parades and medals, but the kind that follows duty and integrity to little dark rooms, bare light bulbs, and leg-irons. (On the other hand, as Melville himself pointed out, the Resistance in 1940 included only 600 souls.)
At its center is Phillippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura), more an existential hero than anything else. With his dark glasses, he is reminiscent of Michael Caine’s slightly obtuse civil servant/spy Palmer in The Ipcress File, and certainly not the dashing adventurer we might expect. His escape from interrogation headquarters in Paris is effective, but not inspired – a couple of well-aimed chops to the guards and a breathless run down dark streets. He ducks into the only available open door, a barbershop, and asks for a shave. Few words are exchanged between him and the taciturn barber leaning over the panting man, and we as well as Gerbier wonder whether the sharp blade that glides over his lathered face will, indeed, slit his throat. Without uttering a word, the barber demonstrates his comprehension and sympathy as he exchanges Gerbier’s dark coat for a lighter one.
Looking more like the mathematical scholar that he is rather than the Chief of Resistance fighters, which he also is, Luc Jardie’s (Paul Meurisse) round face and soft eyes deceive even his brother, who teases that he is afraid of the authorities. Ironic also is the younger brother’s defiant courage, an unknown act of utter bravery he purposely conceals from his fellows.
Simone Signoret plays Mathilde, the only female lead, but one with more brains, inventive boldness, and spirit than any of her male counterparts. Her most daring acts are not flashy acts of sabotage or blown bridges, but the lengths to which she will go to rescue her fallen comrades. There is something of a Joan of Ark in her steely resolve and devotion to the cause, and she is revered by her fellows in almost saintly awe.
Surprisingly lacking, though, are the Nazi occupiers. But then this is an anatomy of the Resistance from the inside out, where the enemy lurks within, retribution is sometimes self-inflicted, and loyalty changes as quickly as the latest cipher code.
This grim masterpiece is not for the faint of heart, and it is about as far from a Hollywood thriller as Lyon is from L.A., but Army of Shadows is one of the finest films to grace our shores in many a year.
You really know things are tough in occupied France when gourmet Luc Jardie can only offer rutabagas and bread for his visiting brother, Francois. To get butter, they have to use Francois’s ration stamps.
And since there was no coal for heat, apartments – even one as elegant as Luc’s – were freezing cold. To conserve the little heat that their bodies put out, they built little wooden spaces inside the large rooms. Here is where the two brothers, each working for the Resistance but unaware of the other’s participation, share their Spartan meal.
But let’s face, who wants a recipe for rutabagas? So I’m going to another scene, this one set on a high promontory overlooking the city. If it weren’t for the taut circumstances, one might even call it a picnic, with food set out on a table and impromptu seating on a low stone wall. The only comment about the meal comes from Mathilde.
“Is it hot?” she asks.
I hope you will find much more to say about this delicious French Oinion Soup, simmered in wine and topped with crusty bread and bubbling cheese.
Bon Appétit !
French Onion Soup
- 3 tablespoons olive or vegetable oil
- 4 large onions, sliced
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 tablespoons flour
- 3 cups beef stock
- 1 cup dry white wine
- 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
- 1 bay leaf
- Salt & pepper to taste
- 6 slices crusty French bread
- 3 tablespoons butter
- 3 cups grated Swiss cheese
- (or Provolone, Mozzarella, and/or Parmesan)
Saute onions in oil in Dutch oven over low heat until tender and golden yellow, about 20 to 25 minutes.
Sprinkle flour over onions; cook a few minutes more, browning the flour well. Add stock and wine and bring to boil; add thyme and bay leaf. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer gently for 20 minutes or so. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Meanwhile, spread bread slices with butter and toast under the broiler, watching carefully to avoid burning.
When soup is ready, spoon into 6 ovenproof bowls; top each with a slice of toast. Divide cheese evenly into 6 portions and sprinkle one portion over toast in each bowl.
Place bowls on cookie sheet and bake in 400F oven for 10 to 15 minutes until cheese is bubbly and golden.
This recipe for Baked French Onion Soup serves/makes
Recipe Source: CD Kitchen