I was an English major in college and a product of the American educational system in general, so my knowledge of world events is understandably pretty vague. Thankfully a life spent watching movies has filled that void with historical facts I otherwise never would have known. Like how Mozart was killed by his rival, Saliari. And how Roman Emperor Commodus was a complete lech killed in front of a coliseum crowd. And how Hitler was gunned down in a theater by a squad of merciless American soldiers who couldn’t speak Italian if their lives depended on it. And how France was filled with big French pussies during World War II who rolled over and let the Germans take whatever and whoever they wanted.
Okay, so that last one actually is true…
France in the early 1940’s is not a great place to be for ethnic foreigners, political dissidents, or Jews. Spineless frogs, however, are living the high life. The Germans are making themselves at home throughout the country, and in Paris many of the French citizens are more than willing collaborators to the Nazi agenda. Amidst the terror, torture, and suspicion exists a cell of resistance fighters led by a real-life Armenian poet named Missak Manouchian. Their campaign of sabotage fails to get the results required so they soon step up their actions to involve bombings and shootings. The German high command sees them as a nuisance at first, but when one of their most respected generals is gunned down and killed in the street the capture of the self-labeled Army of Liberation becomes a priority.
What follows is an uneven balance between drama and violence that moves back and forth between members of the resistance to highlight their lives and motivations both as individuals and as a group. Manouchian fights injustice in all forms egged on by memories of past treatment of Armenians. Marcel Rayman takes his revenge-fueled impulses to the streets while attempting to keep his girlfriend in the dark. That secrecy works against the couple as she’s forced to debase her body with a French policeman in an attempt to keep Rayman safe. Others in the group have their own reasons for joining, but its only Melinee (Virginie Ledoyen) who does so purely of the heart. She’s married to Missak and stays loyal through years of secrecy, incarceration, and danger.
Those dangers are presented brilliantly as fast and brutal acts in both directions of the moral compass. Resistance fighters shoot Germans point blank under the guise of sharing a cigarette, and grenade attacks take out soldiers marching in lock step or riding on a bus. As deadly as these acts are the violence perpetrated on prisoners taken in by the French authorities are far worse. Torture is used without mercy to gain information, but all but one of the stoic men refuse to squeal on their friends leading to harsher acts of interrogation. Heads are submerged in water, stomach flesh is burned with a blowtorch, and a man is threatened with severe violence aimed at his fleshy coin-purse. It’s not pretty, and it’s never meant to be.
While the brief bursts of violence work well to present an image of a dangerous and uncertain society, the drama becomes a bit too much at times. The film feels much of its two hour plus running time thanks to a recurring lack of energy, a dark color palette, and long stretches of overly wrought emotional idealism. The film’s structure doesn’t help as it opens with the end before flashing back through these lives and their final years. We see and know the futility before they do, but except for Melinee we just don’t feel much for these interchangeable good guys.
Director Robert Guediguian is telling a fascinating story, one only hinted at in other films, but he errors on the side of bland heroism a bit too often. The men behind the resistance have minor foibles and are rarely shown to be fully human characters. It’s a showcase for martyrdom at the expense of both accuracy and entertainment. But even while it neglects to create a life of its own, the film manages to give voice to the lives of others who would otherwise be unknown, and for that alone it deserves to be seen.
“They claim to be liberators,” says a German official to the French press swarming around captured members of the resistance, “but this is the army of crime, violence, and hatred.” These radicals are labeled as ‘terrorists’ by the occupying army and the French establishment, but these supposed outsiders are in reality the ones fighting for the future of France. The country on the whole earned its reputation as a nation of weak-willed pushovers, but the film shows that as with all generalizations, the known exceptions are more important than the accepted rule.
The Upside: Fascinating look at a part of history seldom brought to the screen in detail; well-acted
The Downside: Beginning takes a while to settle in and get the characters organized; running time feels excessive; almost joyless; overly melodramatic