Tonight, I finally managed to catch ARMY OF SHADOWS, two days before it ended its Film Forum run. It still hasn't had time to sink in, but I have to say, it was a much different experience than I was expecting (after reading so much glowing praise about it for the past several months). On a visual and technical level, I wouldn't argue with those who call it an outright masterpiece. But when it came to the story, that's where my brow begins to furrow and my head tilts to the side like a dog who's watching his owner pleasure himself while watching "Desperate Housewives." That's because I have ABSOLUTELY NO IDEA what it was about. Seriously, it wasn't until almost two hours in that I finally started grasping what was going on. But that didn't seem right, because if that's what was going on, well, then, NOTHING was going on. Let me try to break it down.
The place is France. The year is 1942. World War II is in full swing. France is occupied. The streets are empty. It is as if there are no more citizens. There are only empty streets. Evil police monitor the land. But there are five people who are fighting to save their country. This group is the French Resistance. Yet they look like science teachers (except for the one who looks like Leonard Cohen). At one point, they're forced to kill a traitor, but they clearly don't like killing so they don't do it very often. One of their most dramatic tasks is to smuggle a small radio into the country. But the problem is that one of them is always getting arrested. Which means that they have to spend all of their time plotting a way to rescue that person. But when he gets out, another one gets arrested. So they spend most of their days thinking of ways to break their friends out of jail. Oh, yes, of course, they also fly missions in which they send four people to England and swap them for four others, who sneak back into France. This is a 24-7 operation. Eventually, they are forced to turn on one of their own to preserve what is left of their Resistance unit. This makes them very sad.
Seriously, I can't recall the last time I watched a film and realized, over ninety minutes into the thing, that I had no idea what was happening. NO IDEA. These people were very secretive, they were wanted by the Nazis, but I never saw them doing anything, really. Well, except for breaking each other out of jail, but that's reactive behavior, not proactive. At the end of the fifth reel, just under the two-hour mark, there was a projector mishap and the lights came back on. Sheepishly, I whispered to my hot date for the night, David Nugent, that I had absolutely no idea what I was watching. Being the man that he is, he confessed that he might have been only one tiny step ahead of me, if that. We tried talking it out and came to the conclusion that all they did was, in fact, break each other out of jail, and that was pretty much it (aside from the plane missions to and from England). After a few minutes, the lights went down and we headed back to World War II France, only to discover that another member of the group had been... arrested! So at least they had something to do for the next few days.
This isn't to say that I wasn't awed by ARMY OF SHADOWS, because I was. I couldn't believe how insanely clean the print and image looked. I dare you to find a more beautiful film. It was shocking, actually. But the fact remains that it took me two hours to 'kind of' grasp what was happening, which 'kind of' kept me from being completely blown away.
I know I'm not the sharpest blade on the lawnmower, but I was still surprised to find myself so completely lost for about four-fifths of this film's 2.5 hours. Which probably confirms its genius, come to think of it...