Friday, October 19, 2007

Complex Close-Ups in Jean-Pierre Melville's Army of Shadows

[This is my contribution for The House Next Door's Close-Up Blogathon, which is running 'til October 21.]

When it comes to close-ups of faces in movies, two kinds usually do it for me: close-ups of a beautiful face (usually a woman's face, for obvious reasons---I'm a 21-year-old single college male; you figure it out), or a close-up of a performer's face that gets a viewer to ponder what that character/actor is thinking in a particular situation.

Of course, thanks to the vast amount of resources offered by cinema, a director can often juxtapose images or use music or sound effects to suggest what may be going on in a character's head at a certain moment. But human beings and their thoughts are, in real life, often so complex that sometimes one close-up, punctuated by a p.o.v. shot or a dramatic music cue, may not be enough to completely explain what may be going on inside a mind. That's what makes the human species so fascinating---and that recognition, I would submit, is what separates true film artists from mere hacks.

Jean-Pierre Melville, the famous French film director who is often considered one of the fathers of the French New Wave, was one such artist---a master of the complex close-up of the kind that invited you to ponder what exactly was rattling inside his characters' often inscrutable minds. Very few films of his demonstrated his masterful use of the close-up more fully and powerfully than in his 1969 masterpiece Army of Shadows.

Part of the power of the various close-ups strewn throughout Army of Shadows comes simply from its subject matter: this is a film about people who have to keep their emotions to themselves in order to carry on their fight against Nazi occupation in France. Carry any personal attachments that may call undue attention to oneself, and one risks capture, torture and even death (and not necessarily from the enemy either). Thus Melville, using this narrative framework, often employs close-ups as an invitation to scrutinize these characters' faces; it's as if he's daring us to see if there are any flickers of humanity to these French Resistance foot soldiers left, or if, like Alain Delon's Jef Costello in Melville's previous film, Le Samourai, Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura), Luc Jardie (Paul Meurisse) and most of the rest have become consumed by duty and habit.

Of course, Melville was an intelligent-enough filmmaker to instinctively know how to use technique and canny camera placement to suggest what his characters might be thinking any time.

Take, for instance, the sequence of shots during one particular breathtaking sequence:

Gerbier has just escaped from the clutches of the Nazis at the Hotel Majestic, and he breathlessly runs into a barbershop, where he asks the barber (Serge Reggiani) for a shave. As the barber starts applying the shaving cream, he notices a sign on one of his walls:

It looks like a pro-Petain sign.

Other thoughts may well be crossing Gerbier's mind at that moment, but Melville's shot selection suggests mostly fear and uncertainty: if this barber is indeed a Petainiste, how would he react if Gerbier betrayed the slightest hint of being Resistance? The barber's focused look as he applies the shaving cream...

...doesn't allay his fears any.

Throughout this sequence, we are put into Gerbier's shoes, feeling what he's feeling, leaving little doubt as to the emotions Melville is trying to convey.

But there are other close-ups in Army of Shadows that are a lot more ambiguous in its implications. Melville may give you hints of what a particular moment might mean to a character, but, without the comfortable moorings of clunky explanatory dialogue or voiceover narration (not that this film entirely dispenses with the latter, but it's used judiciously, and we hear different characters narrate at different times), Melville leaves us feeling that there may be depths to their emotions that may be unknown even to the characters.

Examine this shot/reverse-shot close-up of both Gerbier and an anonymous comrade as they are both held in the Hotel Majestic. Gerbier has just whispered to the no-name comrade that this may be their best chance to escape.

In the first of these two shots, the no-name comrade turns his head away from the Nazi guard and looks directly at the camera.

He's looking at Gerbier, and Gerbier's looking back in the next shot. Then he turns away.

Not a word is exchanged, but the length of these shots and the sheer quiet of the soundtrack (only the sound of an unseen ticking clock is prominently heard) suggests...what, exactly? The anonymous comrade looks nervous about acting; perhaps his look to Gerbier is his covert way of expressing his fear, and maybe Gerbier's more stoic look suggests that he has resigned himself to the fact that he will have to be the one to make the first move. Or it could be that the looks simply represent a silent agreement between the two. You can't exactly tell, and Melville refuses to articulate, either: he leaves it to us to observe and wonder. (Besides, if they actually said anything out loud, they'd be risking getting themselves killed by their common enemy.)

These may be close-ups, but we don't exactly feel close to either character at that moment. But it sure is a lot of fun to figure out what they may be communicating simply through their eyes.

Melville presents a more expressive yet equally mysterious bunch of close-ups during one of my personal favorite sequences, a subtle yet oddly affecting passage set at night in London during what appears to the Baedeker Blitz. In this sequence, Melville is once again juxtaposing images to imply meaning, but this time the meaning is more abstract and elusive.

Gerbier is walking around at night, is jolted by sounds of bombing and mayhem, and takes brief refuge in what appears to be some kind of YMCA/YWCA gathering. As a big band tune colors the soundtrack, Gerbier looks at the various British soldiers mingling and dancing with women:

Is he merely being decadent in his own private way? Or is there something deeper being expressed in his glances? Melville contextualizes it beautifully with this medium shot:

Gerbier seems palpably uncomfortable in this setting, as if he has been wrapped up in his war efforts so long that he has, in effect, deliberately alienated himself from the rest of his society. Maybe it's a discomfort mixed in with longing to rejoin the society he seems to have shunned in order to pursue his cause. A couple of shots later, a bomb falls nearby, and while Gerbier is rattled by it...

...the rest of the soldiers barely seem to recognize it---indeed, the way they carry on, they barely seem to recognize a world war is going on outside.

Longing, perhaps, and pangs of jealousy and disbelief. (Don't these people have any clue what's going on out there???)

He leaves, as if he has become more comfortable in the violence outside than in the pleasant fun inside.

Though this sequence isn't entirely driven by the close-ups, those shots of Gerbier's face taking in his surroundings and realizing how much of an outsider he is are key to this sequence's subtle power: it's perhaps the film's second-most eloquent summation of the moral ambiguities at the film's heart.

The most eloquent and sobering summation, of course, comes at the very end, with the execution of Mathilde (Simone Signoret), who was recently captured and forced to give up the names of the major players of the Resistance after the Nazis threatened harm to her precious daughter. When Gerbier---forced into exile after he escapes from Nazi clutches once again, this time with help from his Resistance companions, including Mathilde---hears about this, he calmly and coldly orders her death.

Mathilde, throughout Army of Shadows, proves herself to be the noble center of this male-dominated group; she's a housewife-type who proves herself to be amazingly adept at taking on a leadership role within the group, brilliantly masterminding a rescue attempt at one point that goes wrong only because their target is physically too far gone to even walk. But she stands out for a simpler reason than mere prowess: she's quite possibly the most human character in the film. It is doubly tragic, then, that they are forced, for the sake of the larger cause, to gun her down; it's as if Mathilde represented the warmth and humanity that they lack, and they know it all too well.

But the close-ups of Mathilde as she realizes she is about to be killed are fascinating because, to my mind, her facial expressions suggest something more than simple fear. She, I would assume, has been in the Resistance-fighting business for as long as her male comrades have, so she would know the perils of being caught as much as anyone.

She raises her eyebrows ever so slightly when she sees the four men in the car.

Then Le Bison takes a gun out from his jacket...

...and Mathilde slightly lowers her eyebrows.

Is it possible that, at that particular moment, the fear she must be feeling could be mixed with resignation---the sad realization that her death is necessary for the cause to go on? Could she even be implicitly asking for her death, as Luc Jardie suggested moments earlier in the film? In the commentary track on the Criterion DVD, film historian Ginette Vincendeau characterizes her death as a "mercy killing"---which would suggest a measure of complicity in her part in her own demise.

Then fear seemingly takes over again as Melville zooms into the barrel of the gun.

Then death---quick, brutal, and who knows, maybe somewhat transcendant, in its own morally ruinous way.

In an interview featured one of the making-of documentaries on the second disc of the Criterion DVD package, it is revealed that Melville, when asked by Simone Signoret whether Mathilde actually betrayed Gerbier, Jardie and the others or not, Melville refused to provide an answer, leaving Signoret and the rest of the cast unsure. That ambiguity registers in every nuance in Signoret's lovely expressions of fear, realization and acceptance---the kind of nuances cinematographers must die for in a close-up.

The ultimate point, in parsing over these shots, is to show how the best close-ups are the most emotionally complex: they're the ones that can best reveal the humanity underneath even walking near-corpses like these French Resistance fighters. Complex close-ups of the kind in Army of Shadows are like staring straight into a character's---or an actor's---soul. They may well represents the heights of cinema---more so than any of the music-video flash that passes for "style" these days.

I'll let the old master Melville have the last word: