Army of Crime (L’Armée du Crime)
Dir. Robert Guédiguian (2009, France, 139 mins.)
Historical dramas have a notable problem in that a well-informed audience knows how they ought to end, and every other audience has a fairly accurate guess. Director Robert Guédiguian embraces this problem at the outset of Army of Crime by beginning with the end: his French Resistance fighters, all members of the Manouchian group, sit on a bus bound for their execution whilst a voice-over informs us of their rather foreign-sounding names and ultimate fate. The effect is bold and humbling. What tension that is removed due to our foreknowledge of events is replaced by the weight of the Resistance fighter’s sacrifice.
The pacing in much of the first half of Army of Crime is fairly slow, but with good reason: Guédiguian takes his time in order to introduce us to a fairly sizable cast of disparate ethnic origins and political backgrounds, all of which is important to the later narrative. Films about the French Resistance can easily be a series of quick and daring raids and exploits, and while Army of Crime certainly has those, it is more concerned with the people behind the movement. That being said, though impressive performances by a talented cast help enliven the film, Guédiguian treats the subject matter with sometimes overbearing respect and sentimentality, a trap many historical dramas fall into.
Unfortunately for Army of Crime, uneven cinematographic choices leave the film looking less than impressive. At it’s worst, Army of Crime can look like a TV movie, and Guédiguian’s predilection for superimposing an actor’s reaction over another shot is both perplexing and ill advised.
That said, it is not difficult to ignore the problems with Army of Crime. The film’s story elements are powerful enough to stand above poor technical choices, and it manages to celebrate members of the French Resistance without being jingoistic. Some of the historical choices are debatable, but I suspect that fans of historical dramas are looking for just that.
– Dave Robson