Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Robert Guédiguian's THE ARMY OF CRIME opens: WWII and the French Resistance

As a fan of the films of writer/producer/director Robert Guédiguian (shown below, of Marius & Jeannette and The Town Is Quiet), I am recommending his most recent work to reach our shores, THE ARMY OF CRIME, even though I had to wait nearly six months between seeing the first two hours of this 140-minute movie and finally catching up with those last 20 minutes. (The DVD shown to the press during the Film Society of Lincoln Center's Rendez-vous With French Cinema, when the film had its American premier last March, turned out not to have the complete film aboard.  The final 20 minutes were missing, so I only just recently was able to view them.) What surprised me most about this experience is how immediately I was able to recognize each character in Guédiguian's relatively vast canvas, recalling immediately who each was, together with his and her place in the scheme of things.

The power of The Army of Crime, as with much of the work of this filmmaker, lies in the details that accrue to build not only strong characterizations but a picture of a country occupied by" civilized" barbarians set on world domination and the destruction of a certain cultural subset.  Yes, it's 1942 World-War-II France, with the German's ferreting out resistance and using torture (early water-boarding and the like) to discover even more. The heroes of the film are the men and women of a particular Communist cell (ooops -- there goes half the American audience, heading for the exits) who come together to plan and carry out successful maneuvers against their German occupiers.  Led by a French-Armenian (Simon Abkarian) and his wife (Virginie Ledoyen), shown below, the group is made up of a fairly wide swath of classes and cultures, French and international, as was the resistance of that time.

In fact, at one point Guédiguian has the German commander point out, as the French press takes photos of some of the captured "traitors," how many of them are foreigners to France and thus, of course, are polluting the fine French gene pool.  As usual with this filmmaker, humanity trumps nationality (if not ideology). The film begins almost at its end and then tracks back, so the outcome for these particular resistance fighters is never much in question. Nor, for that matter, is the outcome of the war itself.

This is hardly the point. Guédiguian seeks to honor fallen heroes, those who died for France, as well as, I suspect, alerting us to the many, many French, especially the police, who too easily collaborated with the Germans.  What most of any populace will do under a vicious occupation -- whether by a foreign country (France under Germany), from within (Spain under Franco) or via puppet regimes set up from abroad (Vietnam under the Nhus, Iraq under Saddam Hussein) -- remains pretty much the same: a few rise up (and are felled), the rest play follow-the-leader.

In any case, The Army of Crime is a riveting, full-bodied exploration of the French Resistance, with a first-rate ensemble cast that also includes Robinson Stévenin (Mauvais Genres), Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet (Love Songs), director Lucas Belvaux (Rapt and Triliogy: One, Two and Three) and the director's semi-regulars like Jean-Pierre Darroussin (shown above) and Ariane Ascaride.

Guédiguian moves back and forth in the time period with speed and grace, easily capturing the look, feel -- and fear -- of 1940s France. Occasionally there's a scene of great suspense and/or action (below), but because the pacing is fairly regular and the subject matter well-trod, you could leave the theater imagining that you've seen just another WWII movie.  But wait; the movie may stick with you. Due to Guédiguian's many well-selected details -- for instance, the French girl's giving herself over to an inspector to ensure her boyfriends' safety and the ironic result of this -- it has with me.

The Army of Crime, distributed by Lorber Films, opens this Friday, 8/20/10 -- in New York City at the Quad Cinema. For those looking for an uptown location, the film is also playing at NYC's Jewish Community Center in Manhattan (76th Street & Amsterdam Ave) from 8/21 through 8/26. I'll report on additional playdates, cities and theaters, as these appear.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

The film is also playing at NYC's Jewish Community Center in Manhattan (76th Street & Amsterdam Ave) for those looking for an uptown location 8/21-8/26.

jccfilm.org for tickets/times

James van Maanen, said...

Thanks, Anon -- I will post this post-haste!

AL said...

You point to a universal theme indeed - what would you and I do under vicious occupation? Cooperation to preserve privilege? Resist at the risk of life, not only of oneself but others, including family? Or cowardly mute acquiescence, the safe but shameful route? With such draconian penalties for being found out, it's no wonder that those brave or foolhardy enough to resist are few. If this film is a convincing cliff hanger of that kind, replete with pungent characterisation, it would be a must see. But you imply it advances to a foregone conclusion, so perhaps it lacks some of that tension. But the approaching claustrophobic panic, and the moral dilemma, would still be gripping. Yes, sounds like a must see.

James van Maanen, said...

Yes, AL: Films like this one always make me wonder -- What would I do in a situation like this? Shoud you see it, please weigh in with your opinion. I'd love to know what you think of it.

If given the opportunity to see a film by Guédiguian, I can never resist. But then I especially enjoy and appreciate his socialist slant.

AL said...

Well glad to do so James but actually my Comment was a discreet question...

AL said...

....never answered! Well, I just meant, did it spoil the cliffhanger tension that you knew the outcome in the end at the beginning (if I understand your review correctly)?

Cheers

AL

James van Maanen, said...

Ah, NOW I get your question. You did understand my review correctly, and no, it didn't spoil the tension. There's so much more in the movie other than simple suspense; a Guédiguian film is never so easily spoiled as that!