Army of Shadows
This masterpiece by Jean-Pierre Melville about the French Resistance went unreleased in the United States for thirty-seven years, until its triumphant theatrical debut in 2006. Atmospheric and gripping, Army of Shadows is Melville’s most personal film, featuring Lino Ventura, Paul Meurisse, Jean-Pierre Cassel, and the incomparable Simone Signoret as intrepid underground fighters who must grapple with their conception of honor in their battle against Hitler’s regime.
In a welcome surprise Criterion releases Jean-Pierre Melville’s Army of Shadows on Blu-ray after many feared it would be the next DVD in the collection to fall victim to “OOP” status after the last couple of waves of Studio Canal titles Criterion lost. Criterion again presents the film in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 on this dual-layer disc and give it nice looking 1080p/24hz transfer.
The upgrade from DVD is quite astonishing. I was surprised at the number of compression artifacts present on Criterion’s DVD after revisiting it and this edition pretty much erases all of those problems, delivering a crisp, clean, and film-like image. Overall detail is strong and the image remains fairly sharp, though there are still some softer moments that look to be inherent in the source. Colours look a little different here; the film has a very dreary look, heavy in blues and grays (many in the supplements refer to this look as Melville making a “black and white film in colour”) and never really pops because of this, but in comparison to the DVD the colours look to be better saturated, and the film even has a somewhat darker look, which I liked much more. Blacks can look crushed and details can get lost during some moments, but overall blacks are much inkier and deeper here.
There’s a few minor marks in the print but it’s just as clean as what was present on the DVD edition. Again, all artifacts from the DVD’s transfer are gone and I did not detect any issues in this transfer. Other than some of the crushed blacks any issues with the image have more to do with the source elements than the actual transfer.
Criterion includes two French tracks, a linear PCM mono track and then a DTS-HD MA 2.0 track. I must admit I preferred the DTS-HD track as it was a bit more robust and filled out the environment nicely. Dialogue can be a little flat, but music and sound effects have some nice range and present more power.
The mono track in comparison is very flat and quieter, with very little life to it with dialogue sounding even weaker. Still, both tracks are clean and present no issues with damage.
Criterion ports everything over from their wonderful 2-disc DVD edition of the film, cramming it all onto this single Blu-ray disc.
Up first is the same audio commentary by film historian Ginette Vincendeau, which was originally recorded for BFI. It’s a decent scholarly commentary, filled with some interesting comments and observations about the film, its subject matter, and look. On top of talking about the film and breaking down sequences, she does offer some historical context, talking a little about the Resistance and Nazi occupied France. She mentions other films that involve the German occupation (like Rene Clement’s Is Paris Burning?) and makes comparisons, and even talks about some of the criticisms made against this film during its initial release, especially the de Gaulle sequence in England. There is also mention of the original novel by Joseph Kessel and she covers some of the differences. At times dry but I enjoyed it. It’s at least worth sampling.
The remaining supplements are all video, starting with Jean-Pierre Melville Filmmaker, which is a 4-minute behind-the-scenes piece taken from a news segment shown in 1968 (as it says on the menu notes—the segment actually dates it to 1969, so I’m assuming it’s a misprint in the notes.) There’s some footage from the set and a brief interview with Melville.
Next is a segment devoted to cinematographer Pierre Lhomme. First is an Interview with the man, running 14-minutes and divided into 5 chapters. In it he talks about the restoration process which proved difficult, and then recalls the shoot and working with Melville. He talks about Melville’s work with budgets, some of the conflicts they had, the lighting, the colour, and then he talks about the man himself. Some of his comments about the restoration are then displayed in an accompanying restoration demonstration, running 7-minutes with no sound. It examines a few scenes, showing before and afters that best show off the restoration. It also points out what sources the material came from. The most fascinating portion may be the first segment, which shows how the opening march was restored despite missing frames. There is then a small photo gallery showing the colour tests used. Overall it’s a great section with terrific material, all of which are worth the time going through.
The next interview is with film editor Françoise Bonnot. For 11-minutes she talks about her mother who was an editor, and then covers her work on Z, which earned her an Oscar. She then talks about Melville (saying he’s a “tyrant” to work with) and the work she did with him, Army of Shadows primarily of course. She goes into great detail about the sound effects and then the opening march, which apparently moved from the beginning to the end and back again and again. In all it’s a charming interview and one of the better ones to be found on the release.
Criterion then includes plenty of archival material. L’invite du dimanche provides excerpts from a television program broadcast in 1969. Running 30-minutes and divided into 5-chapters, it presents a number of interviews with the director and those from the set, along with author Joseph Kessel. It also has an interview with Andre Dewavrin (aka Colonel Passy,) who was a member of the resistance and also appears in the film. Another strong inclusion.
Next is a making-of made by Studio Canal in 2006 called Melville et “L’armee des ombres”. It again features Lhomme talking again about the look of the film and how tough it could be to work with Melville. Bonnot also appears again, talking about the same material she covers in her lone interview found in this set. But we also get interviews with Jean-Pierre Cassel, composer Eric Demarsan, and then filmmakers Philippe Labro and Bertrand Tavernier. Though some of the material covered in here is mentioned elsewhere, primarily within the commentary track, there’s still a wealth of information here about Melville and his career, along with material specific to Army of Shadows, like the touchy working relationship between Melville and actor Lino Ventura, his friendlier working relationship with Simone Signoret, and then the director’s American influences. Again some of the material is repeated in the other supplements but it’s a decent making-of. It runs 28-minutes and has been divided into 6 chapters.
Continuing on with archival material, Criterion presents a section entitled “The Resistance” which presents three features. First is Le journal de la resistance, which is a 34-minute film directed by Jean Painleve and Jean Gremillion, which shows footage from the last days of the German occupation. After an incredibly long scrolling text introduction, we see footage from around the city involving fighting between the French resistance fighters and the Nazis, who eventually flee, with narration by Noel Coward.
After this is a 1984 interview with Simone Signoret and Lucie Aubrac running 4-minutes. Aubrac was a resistance fighter who was the basis for Mathilde, the character played by Signoret. Signoret talks about the character and representation, while Aubrac talks a little about the resistance and her surprise about movies being made around it.
The final feature is a 23-minute presentation of television excerpts from Ouvrez les Guillemets. Recorded and broadcast in 1973 it gathers together former resistance fighters (including Dewavrin again) who talk not only about the time period and their relationship with England (with a debate that gets somewhat heated but remains civil) but also talk about the publication “Combat”.
In all it’s an excellent section, with actual footage from the time period and the interviews with those that participated in the Resistance. All fantastic inclusions.
The supplements then close with two theatrical trailers, including the original French trailer and then the 2006 U.S. release trailer.
The booklet then carries everything over from the DVD, starting with an excellent essay on the film by Amy Taubin. Robert O. Paxton provides an interesting piece on the characters in the film and what they represent, and then finally we get a reprinted interview with the director. A strong booklet and I’m glad Criterion carried everything over.
Though nothing new has been added this isn’t an issue since the DVD edition was a solid release to begin with. All the supplements are strong and worth the time to go through.
Nothing new in supplements, but those that already own the DVD may find the upgrade worth it for the transfer alone, which drastically improves over the DVD’s highly compressed transfer. For everyone else who hasn’t picked up the DVD edition yet it comes with a high recommendation.