In her informative and englightening commentary track, Ginette Vincendeau describes Army of Shadows as demythologizing the resistance. (And, no, I'm not saying that particular description is an example of great insight, just using it as a starting point.)
One of the things I admire about the film is how it accomplishes that feat without being cynical. The film eschews, for the most part, spectacle, and its power doesn't come from the action set pieces we are weaned on and come to expect in genre films, set pieces so increasingly frequent that they have become divorced from any real, consequential meaning and hence don't really thrill so much as distract...but I digress.
The film is somber and filled with loneliness, yet it never seems self-conscious. In a short interview clip accompanying the DVD, director Jean-Pierre Melville talks of himself in somewhat self-deprecating terms, insisting that he is not special for having fought in the war. His affect comes across as neither coy nor angry, and it is this perspective that really distinguishes Army of Shadows, I think, from the films that mythologize war or resistance with insistnence on triumphal justifications or laments of martyrdom. (I'm thinking, for instance, of the ways in which Munich covers similar thematic ground but leaves the grating impression that its protagonists are unique for having been bent by environments not of their choosing and are thus somehow not just pitiable but heroic in their suffering.)
The closest recent studio film that I can think of that reminds me of Army of Shadows is not Munich, in fact, but Unforgiven. The latter, with its tone of introspective weariness, eschews violence but doesn't Romanticize damnation or self-castigation the way too many premature reminisces do. In a Summer filled with a wave of 9/11 films that felt suspiciously self-aggrandizingly martyristic (is that a word?) in their totality, it was strange to see this reminder of other worlds shattered, other lives disrupted.
I haven't said anything about plot, and I find it hard to speak of the film on that level. It is not plotless, but a narrative summary gives away plot points and connections between them best made by the viewer himself. Army of Shadows begins with a painful image of the Germans marching down the Champs d' Elysee and a speaker saying he will not flee painful memories because they are reminders of his youth. The (relative) retrospective distance allows the film to follow several members of the French resistance and the psychological as well as physical damage that the war inflicts upon them.
Everything and everyone seemed so remote in this film, and that, too, is strange for a war film. So often there is a fraternity amongst those who have seen combat or other rough times together, and the way that the necessities of the resistance robs these fighters of even that is strangely touching. Despite the omnipresent threat of death and one up-close-and-personal assault on a German soldier, the war itself, the rest of the world, seems remote, not a maguffin, surely, but not exactly an antagonist upon which all the moral and spiritual problems of the people in the world can be blamed, either. Normalcy--life without war--is even more remote, and these seem to hold a fear within them, especially in an early, brutal scene, that the change in circumstances for which they hope will not restore the ties they had to the world and others in it.
All of which makes Army of Shadows sound nihilistic and despairing. My central conundrum in thinking about the film is that I did not find it so, and yet I struggle to see a source of hope from within the film. There are things I bring to the film that make it possible for me to see the lives that are depicted as something other than wasted; I must think so, for I believe in one who knows the number of hairs on their heads. But that's my sensibility, not Phillipe Gerbier's.
Perhaps I see hope in the film's postscript, suggesting that we may not be able to escape our fate, but we can find dignity in how we accept it. Perhaps there is meaning simply in telling the truth, however painful, and a nobility in refusing to mythologize one's pain to make it more spritually palatable. Perhaps there is meaning in the small connections, touches, fleeting moments that fill the fringes and transitions of our lives (if not the bulk of them). Perhaps the film gives us a model for not mythologizing our own lives, for accepting the truth of Ecclesiastes that says:
Sow your seed in the morning,
and at evening let not your hands be idle,
for you do not know which will succeed,
whether this or that,
or whether both will do equally well. (11:6)
[For more on this film, see also John's write up at Gladsome Morning. And look for a (hopefully) more coherent discussion of the film next month at The Matthew'sHouse Project.]