By Don Simpson | August 20, 2010
Writer: Robert Guédiguian, Serge Le Péron, Gilles Taurand
Starring: Virginie Ledoyen, Simon Abkarian
“There were twenty-three of them when the guns flowered
Twenty-three who gave their hearts before it was time,
Twenty-three foreigners and yet our brothers
Twenty-three in love with life to the point of losing it
Twenty-three who cried “France!” as they fell.”
(Louis Aragon, Strophes pour se souvenir)
The phrase “army of crime” is a reference to a caption on the Affiche Rouge (“red poster”), a propaganda poster campaign with which the Nazis sought to present French resistance fighters as criminals: “Liberators? Liberation by the army of crime.”
Based on the true stories of the Francs-tireurs et partisans – Main-d’œuvre immigrée (FTP-MOI), Army of Crime begins with an Altman-esque intertwining of the very individual narratives concerning a multifarious hodgepodge of anti-fascists operating clandestinely and individually in occupied Paris (a city that seems to have accepted German occupation and the mass deportations of its Jewish residents with timid acquiescence). Eventually the characters realize that their strength would be in numbers and they trade their solitary acts of resistance to join together as an organized underground operation — “a family of fighters to confront the occupiers.” Led by Missak Manouchian (Simon Abkarian), a real-life Armenian poet and card-carrying communist, the ragtag team also includes the hotheaded Polish Jew Marcel Rayman (Robinson Stévenin), Hungarian member of the communist youth Thomas Elek (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet) and Polish Jewish communist Joseph Epstein (Lucas Belvaux).
By introducing the characters individually first, director Robert Guédiguian establishes their individual motives for their acts of resistance. Manouchian, for one, is reluctant to kill let alone handle a handgun; but after becoming the leader of the FTP-MOI and making his first kill — a grenade attack on a small marching brigade of SS men — Manouchian never expresses any future misgivings about violence. He explains to his wife (Virginie Ledoyen), “I always felt revenge was an awful idea…I’ve become a real fighter. It’s my first act and it won’t be my last. Once you’ve started, you can’t back down.”
Functioning as a cinematic antidote — or palate cleanser — to Quentin Tarantino’s glorifyingly ultra-violent Inglorious Basterds, this French resistance drama makes a concerted effort to focus on the moral and ethical compromises required when one acts in vengeful opposition to their oppressors. When is it appropriate to kill? Who deserves to be killed? What gives one person the right to take another life? (Epstein legitimizes the group’s violence by stating, “We kill people, but we’re on the side of life.”) And what about collateral damage and innocent bystanders? Do the family members (women and children) of Nazis deserve to be killed?
Guédiguian also calls into question the moral and ethical dilemmas related to the seemingly necessary acts of compromise between the free French and their oppressors. The majority of the FTP-MOI opt for total non-compromise (pointedly refusing to give up their comrades during interrogations), but there are some all-out squealers and others — including Manouchian himself — who are willing to denounce their heartfelt beliefs in order to survive. Probably the most questionable compromise is made by Raymon’s Jewish girlfriend, Monique (Lola Naymark), who engages in sex acts with a French police investigator in order to shed her Jewish star, communicate with her captured parents and protect Raymon.
But despite its existential ruminations, Army of Crime plays like an episodic television mini-series that only seems interested in trumping up the sentimentality of the martyrdom of its characters, as is exemplified in the opening and closing sequences in which the captured resistance members names are recited by an off-screen voice as they near their impending executions.