A period piece typically means serious business when it gets the most pressing question the audience can possibly have out of the way right at the start. Robert Guédiguian's Army of Crime begins by letting the viewer know what ultimately happened within the first couple of minutes; things did not turn out well, and a great many of the cast aren't going to be around when the credits roll.
The film gets some tremendous performances out of this constant sense of impending doom but is fairly badly hamstrung by the general sense that, having got this sorted out, Guédiguian isn't entirely sure what to do with the rest of the running time.
It's understandable, at least, that he would approach the material this way given Army of Crime's story is far more well known in France. The film dramatises the exploits of the Manouchian Group, a loosely-knit band of resistance fighters in occupied Paris during World War II who were led by the poet Missak Manouchian (Simon Abkarian, Rage, Rendition). He was a French Armenian affiliated with the Communist Party who had already been jailed and victimised for his political beliefs before joining the insurrection.
At more than two hours the writers have enough time to introduce plot threads focused on several different members of the group. Most of the key characters are young, impassioned and decidedly headstrong, with the bulk of the conflict (beyond the general threat of living in enemy territory during wartime) taking place between parents - or at least parental figures - and children.
Army of Crime shows the younger generation among the Jewish and immigrant populations resentful of their powerlessness in the face of the Nazi occupation and their parents' seeming readiness to capitulate. When Manouchian offers them a chance to band together in organised, violent rebellion, they jump at the chance; indeed, they've been doing this for some time already. Which proves to be a problem, given they're disinclined to knuckle down and start taking orders.
The script by Serge Le Péron and Gilles Taurand manages some fairly effective set-pieces while still staying relatively faithful to accepted history, and on a basic, visual level Guédiguian proves an accomplished director. The main problem is neither the narrative nor the direction ever seem to overcome the sense that on some level the filmmakers can't decide how best to get to the grim finale.
There are more than enough great moments throughout the film, but the pacing is not so much off as barely there. The story starts off strongly enough, with Manouchian jailed and his wife Mélinée (Virginie Ledoyen, Backwoods, The Beach) galvanised into the first steps towards resistance while the younger would-be recruits Marcel Rayman and Thomas Elek start their own mini-terrorist campaigns.
But Guédiguian can't keep up the tension. The story progresses in fits and starts, as if he's convinced that well, given this all ends poorly, does anyone need any more character development? Then he reconsiders, and the writers deliver a little more exposition. Then he changes his mind again, and so on. With half an hour lost, Army of Crime would be a memorable, rapid-fire little thriller yet as it stands it feels much more like a TV series edited down (very poorly, at that) to feature length.
The performances are still reason enough to watch it; Abkarian is tremendous as Missak Manouchian, all sad-eyed, languid resignation and barely suppressed grief. Ledoyen is a much better actress in her native tongue, quite magnetic despite being saddled with a tan which - whatever the intention behind it was - comes off almost as distracting as blackface. The younger cast members struggle somewhat, given the script doesn't do much to stop their dialogue coming across as relatively predictable (or in the worst cases their roles as superfluous). Robinson Stévenin as Marcel and Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet as Thomas Elek still manage to make an impression despite each being tasked with playing the rebel very broadly from the moment they walk onscreen.
Army of Crime is undeniably a powerful film, given the strength of the material (and its fidelity to real events), not to mention the talent involved. It's just that for every moment the viewer ends up catching their breath - Mélinée silently greeting her husband on his return from jail, Missak's decision to kill, Thomas' return from his induction into the group - there's far too much dead air. The police close in half-heartedly over two-and-a-quarter hours, a wedding raided seems almost pointless and a subplot with a French inspector chasing the group is a mess.
For those interested in a purchase, Optimum Home Entertainment's UK DVD (available to buy from 1st February) gives the film a decent, if spartan release. The menus are attractively, if predictably presented (all sepia newsprint and fading photographs) though the clips they show might count as minor spoilers. The picture isn't reference material, but it's fairly well defined, with decent colour balance and the production values of the film are good enough to make up somewhat for any softness or lack of detail.
The default French stereo 2.0 (Dolby Digital 5.1 is also available) is clear and well-balanced, with no noticeable muffled dialogue. Removable subtitles are perfectly legible.
Extras are sparse - Army of Crime at Cannes 2009 is four minutes of clips from the film's première out of competition at the festival in May that year, mostly with the sound muted and musical accompaniment. The theatrical trailer is snappily cut and gives a fairly good portrayal of what the film is about, though the subtitles can't keep up with the speech and the intertitles and predictably it does give away many of the set-pieces.
Most substantial is an Interview with Robert Guédiguian, fifteen minutes filmed during the Cambridge Film Festival at the city's Picture House cinema. The director answers questions presented via title cards, and proves both voluble and engaging, discussing subjects from his own political sympathies to his approach to filmmaking.
Crime bears reservations; at its weakest it can seem directionless,
ineffective and worst of all over-familiar. But it is a powerful
piece of cinema at times, well-acted and compelling even before
considering it's closely based on a true story. For those who haven't
yet had their fill of True Tales from World War II and feel ready to
go easy on a director who clearly cares very deeply about his subject
matter, Robert Guédiguian's film comes cautiously recommended.
(Thanks go to Optimum Home Entertainment for facilitating this DVD review.)