Vive la résistance!

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The Ciné Lumière is celebrating 70 years of the French Resistance with an excellent season of films, finds Dave Calhoun

Seventy years ago this week, Charles de Gaulle, then a little-known general in the French army, made a radio broadcast on the BBC from London encouraging all of France to continue the struggle against German occupation and unite under his command. A new biography of de Gaulle, by Jonathan Fenby, now claims that the broadcast was almost cancelled due to Winston Churchill and his government’s fear of offending the new, collaborationist French government of Marshal Pétain. But whatever the backroom talk, the speech went ahead, with de Gaulle acknowledging that Germany had almost defeated France but calling for the fight to continue: ‘Has the last word been said? Must hope disappear? Is defeat final? No!… The flame of French resistance must not and will not be extinguished.’

This week and next, the Ciné Lumière will remember the seventieth anniversary of the start of the wartime resistance with a short season of films old and new. Topping the bill are two films which are not only two of the best films about the Resistance but two of the best French films, full stop: Jean-Pierre Melville’s ‘Army of Shadows’ (1969) and Robert Bresson’s ‘A Man Escaped’ (1956).

The first, screening on Thursday June 17, is a steely and bleak account of the work of a small group of Resistance fighters and was greeted with hostility on its release in late 1960s France, where critics objected to a perceived and unfashionable celebration of de Gaulle. But it comes across today as a deeply unromantic, untriumphant film concerned with the grim reality of facing impending death and having to act against instinct for a cause.

Not that Melville’s film hasn’t remained a focal point for alternative screen takes on French history: Robert Guédiguian’s ‘Army of Crime’ (2009), showing at the Ciné Lumière on Wednesday June 23, echoes its title in an attempt to recall the contribution of communists and immigrants to the cause of the Resistance, while Rachid Bouchareb’s ‘Outside the Law’, which premiered in Cannes last month and should screen in London later this year, also borrows some of its style to invite empathy for the armed Algerian nationalist cause in 1950s France.

The season’s second masterpiece is Bresson’s extraordinary ‘A Man Escaped’, which is screening on Saturday June 19 and is based on the memoirs of André Devigny, a prisoner of war held in Lyon’s Fort Montluc during the war. The film tells in unflinching detail of the efforts of the fictional Lieutenant Fontaine (François Leterrier) to escape from the jail – a project which requires a delicate balance of individual effort and collective support. Simple in execution, it’s a thoroughly gripping and deeply inquiring film.

Of the other work in the season, the new six-part French documentary series ‘Apocalypse’ looks to be essential. This oral history of World War II is composed entirely of archive footage and screens over a month from Saturday June 19. There’a also a screening on Wednesday June 23 of René Clément’s documentary-style ‘The Battle of the Rails’ (1946) – a drama about the contribution of railway workers to the Resistance – and a three-film tribute to Britain’s own rousing wartime documentarist, Humphrey Jennings, on Thursday June 24. How, ahem, can you resist it?

‘Resistance on Screen’ is at the Ciné Lumière now.

Author: Dave Calhoun



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