My first Jean Pierre Melville film was Le Samourai, which I love intensely. It was this fascination with his crime capers that made me initially shun watching L’armee des ombres, or Army Of Shadows. No, Army is about the French resistance in WWII and whilst the subject matter differs, the style and execution is probably better. It’s Melville crafting an excellent, if severely depressing view on things. Normally you get heroes who die gloriously but here it feels a lot more like average joes slowing going out with the barest whimper. Their fates appear embraced right from the beginning. I enjoyed it as a film but also hated it because it feels too awful.

Scene after scene, you get dreary and bleak juxtaposed against the calm insouciance of the characters, or perhaps it’s some innate understanding that there’s no escaping the clutches of death painted on the faces. Yes, everyone dies. Yet, it’s careful pacing, haunting soundtrack and constant subterfuge overpowers the violence and brutality required for the story. So you’re always focused on how these guys keep going on despite what happens and what they must do.

The film reunites Melville with two of his stars from Le Deuxieme Souffle, Lino Ventura and Paul Meurisse. The former is one of the leaders of the underground French resistance and the film starts with him going into an internment camp, only to make a daring break, narrowly avoiding capture. Which feels like most of the film, complicated, detailed operations with lots of set up and always near misses until we reach the inevitable conclusion, where everything is the darkest, subjectively and literally. Along the way, there’s a little questioning morality in war but also honor and courage as well.

In 2006, the film was re released in the US to critical acclaim, having been ignored for its near complete existence before that. Check the trailer.