Army of Shadows
Jean-Pierre Melville's masterpiece about the French Resistance against the Nazi occupation went unreleased in the United States for thirty-seven years, before 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 own brand of honor in their battle against Hitler's regime.
Criterion presents the North American DVD debut of Jean-Pierre Melville’s Army of Shadows in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 on the first dual-layer disc of this two-disc set. The image has been enhanced for widescreen televisions.
Not terrible by any means but the transfer found here is certainly open to improvement. The biggest annoyance is compression artifacts, which are scattered about throughout the film, which range from noise to halos and edge-enhancement. Detail in the image is okay but it comes off fuzzy most of the time, probably because of the compression. The film has a very drab colour scheme but they can come off a little muted and leave a bit to desire, and blacks vary from decent to slightly washed.
The film has been beautifully restored and there is very little in the way of damage here, with only a few minor blemishes to speak of.
In the end it’s a bit disappointing, but Criterion’s Blu-ray, released at the beginning of this past year, offered a significant improvement and would be the one to go with.
Criterion includes a couple of French tracks: A Dolby Digital 1.0 mono track and a stereo track. Of the two the stereo track sounds better, filling out the fronts nicely with audio that’s a little livelier than the mono track, which is flat across the board. The stereo track presents flat dialogue but music and effects have a little more range and life to them. I also didn’t detect any problems with the audio in the way of damage or noise.
The North American home video premiere of Army of Shadows comes in a fairly loaded 2-disc DVD edition.
Up first on the first disc is an 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 first disc then closes with two theatrical trailers, including the original French trailer and then the 2006 U.S. release trailer.
The remaining supplements found on the second dual-layer disc, starting with Jean-Pierre Melville Filmmaker, which is a 4-minute behind-the-scenes piece taken from a news segment shown in 1968. There’s some footage from the set and a brief interview with Melville.
Next is a section 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 booklet comes with a few items, 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 solid set of supplements and each and every one is worth going through.
The new Blu-ray is the way to go as it presents a better transfer. The transfer here isn’t terrible but I felt it had too many compression artifacts that harmed the image. But the supplements are excellent and this releases strongest aspect.