Army of Shadows
dir. Jean-Pierre Melville
It's easy to lapse into nostalgia after seeing Army of Shadows (1969), which, on top of the perfect title, is a damn near unimpeachable movie: serious, complex, and relentlessly intense. It's an object lesson in how to make an art film. Don't assume the audience will stay invested just because it's about an important subject (here, the French Resistance). Do include heart-stopping shots that are about ideas, not just beauty (Army of Shadows opens with a phalanx of Nazi soldiers executing a rigid right turn in front of the Arc de Triomphe). But back in 1969, Army of Shadows wasn't distributed in the U.S. In fact, it's never been released here before now. Any nostalgia is probably premature—especially given that the film is being released in a political climate where acts of terrorism and sabotage against occupying forces are anything but simple bywords for patriotism.
Beautifully restored under the supervision of original cinematographer Pierre Lhomme, Army of Shadows swings from link to link on the chain of Resistance command (Simone Signoret, who resembles Stockard Channing no matter how many guises she assumes, is especially awesome), but it begins and ends with the operative Philippe Gerbier, played with impassive grace by a jowly, spectacled Lino Ventura. Ventura, who made his name with small roles in stylish movies like Touchez pas au grisbi and Elevator to the Gallows, is the ideal hero for this decidedly ambivalent tale. We root for him because he's right—the Nazis should get the fuck off French soil—but his casual brutality keeps us at arm's length. Gerbier's philosophy is sketched out in quick strokes: He has no tolerance for collaborators (like the buddy-buddy gendarme who rides with him in the paddy wagon on the way to a camp for political prisoners) nor has he any use for desperate sycophants (fellow prisoners who offer excuses for the behavior that got them arrested). He quickly homes in on a possible ally, a skinny Communist kid; and just as efficiently, puts him to work on an escape plan. But lest we get too intoxicated by this camaraderie and joie de vivre, Gerbier next demonstrates a ruthless discipline: He orders a green recruit to strangle a traitor to the cause.
What Army of Shadows repeatedly, and astonishingly, demonstrates, is the cruelty at the core of Resistance heroism. Just because you're fighting against an external, political evil, Melville warns, doesn't mean you can wipe the tar from your own soul. A barrage of breathlessly paced scenarios speeds by (from a sickening parachute jump to an undercover rescue mission at Gestapo HQ), always accompanied by white noise in the background. The tick of a clock, the roar of the Métro, the buzz of an electricity routing station—these sounds are the hum of suspense, but they're also muddy, indistinct, like the very ethics of insurgency. ANNIE WAGNER
Brothers of the Head
dir. Louis Pepe and Keith Fulton
You could swear you were watching an episode of Behind the Music, except the cinematography is lush with vintage grain, the torch-lit bedroom scenes are just a touch too intimate... and it's about a pair of (sexy!) conjoined twins who became huge stars in the '70s. Um, who?
Clearly counterfactual, but not exaggerated enough to qualify as a mockumentary, Brothers of the Head—which premiered locally at SIFF—tells the story of Tom and Barry Howe (real-life identical twins Harry and Luke Treadaway), beautiful boys born fused at the ribs and raised in obscurity on the east coast of England. As their father casts about for a way to make a buck out of their deformity, glam decadence is shifting into proto-punk, and authenticity has become synonymous with not fitting in. Tom and Barry's route to post-vaudeville stardom is clear: They'll learn to sulk, apply eyeliner, and play guitar as a trashily rakish duo called the Bang Bang. Then, of course, a well-meaning female journalist gets involved, surgical separation is floated, and their early promise goes up in smoke.
You've never seen a movie like this, and that's not necessarily a good thing. What's the point of imitating VH1 if you're not going to have fun squishing around in the filth? Or of making a fake doc that doesn't have anything to say about the real thing? The screenplay ridicules the earnest journalist, with her hushed whispers about exploitation, but directors Louis Pepe and Keith Fulton fail to draw a distinction between their dead-serious themes and her prurient condescension. Still, the music (by Clive Langer, a producer and bona fide '70s punk rocker) is awesome. Then there's that scene where, during a promotional photo shoot, the twins twist on their fleshy nexus and tongue-kiss. It will blow your mind. ANNIE WAGNER
Sir! No Sir!
dir. David Zeiger
An impassioned, long-overdue look at those Vietnam war protestors who also happened to wear dog tags, whose disapproval of the war came via underground newspapers, nonviolent demonstrations, and occasional out-and-out refusals to serve. Director David Zeiger's film begins with a ferocious blast of acid rock, which perhaps helps to explain the somewhat jumbled format. (One of the more fascinating digressions involves a man who has made it his mission to debunk the urban myth of civilians spitting on returning soldiers.) Occasionally clunky flow aside, this is a vital, absorbing documentary, with a wealth of archival footage and present-day interviews (including an exuberant Jane Fonda), and a subject that could hardly be more timely. Randy Rowland—a former GI nurse whose recounting about his time served at the now shuttered Presidio Stockade provides one of the film's most affecting scenes—will be on hand to introduce some screenings. ANDREW WRIGHT