It is a commonly expressed idea that works of art set in the past or in the future, such as Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, are actually about the time in which they were created. This adage certainly rings true for the French director Robert Guédiguian's new film, Army of Crime, which ostensibly is about immigrants in Vichy France who joined the resistance and helped defeat the Nazis. The 55-year-old Guédiguian is of Armenian heritage, just like the film's main character, Missak (played by the Armenian Simon Abkarian), who operates undercover with the help of his French wife, Melenee (Virginie Ledoyen). It's a movie with extravagant set pieces celebrating the 22 men and one woman condemned to death in February 1944 for their role in the resistance.
In a film that celebrates the act of resistance there is inevitably potential for parallels with modern-day politics. But Guédiguian, who in 2005 directed The Last Mitterrand, argues that the movie is about something else entirely: the end of socialism. He says: "I believe that with the end of socialist governments, especially in Europe, we have lost all the ties with the workers and the battles of the past. The end of the socialist tradition in the Eighties and in the early Nineties has cut the ties in the past that saw the birth of the community spirit. For me, it's time to renew this tradition. The big moment of recent history is the Second World War and for my generation it's the most heroic moment. If you think about who is buried in the Pantheon in Paris it's the fighters in this war. I thought that this was the right moment to tell the younger generation to take a look at the past. It's important that they understand."
Guédiguian also makes no bones about the fact that he sees individuals fighting against governments as a positive. "I think this is definitely the case," he says. "It's always useful to make activities that create change in life. Change is always progressive. If you were to stop change one day it would result in nothing being created." This is a sentiment echoed by the film's 32-year-old French star Ledoyen. "Maybe it's a good time at the moment to broadcast this message. To fight for what you want and believe is very important," she says.
The director says that the current economic downturn may have some benefits. "It's terrible to say that it is a good thing, because it's putting some people in misery. But it has also shown once again the necessity of revolt and the fact that we should not always listen to what we are told about society and that we have to speak among ourselves and come up with our own solutions." It's a message that Guédiguian tries to get across in all of his films. "I believe that there is not another way forward except through the collective and the role of the common tie - it's not communism but community that is the link between all my films," he explains.
The title of the film pays homage to the most famous resistance movie made thus far, Jean-Pierre Melville's Army of Shadows. Army of Crime takes this portrayal of the resistance and mixes it with Rachid Bouchareb's Days of Glory, in which the emphasis is placed on what non-French people sacrificed to ensure that the country could adhere to its motto of liberty, equality and fraternity. The director says of his movie: "For me, as opposed to Army of Shadows, I wanted to do army of light. Army of Shadows was all about espionage, the combat, and the secrets and there were lots of things that happened in the night. I wanted my characters to show the army of light and by that I mean the light that is inside of all of us."
The most impressive way that he shows the light in everyone is through the decision to humanise the Germans killed in the movie. He does this in a subtle and interesting manner, lingering on the dead bodies and showing the reactions of others as these men are killed. He states that he wanted to show that soldiers "cry and are human too. But a soldier had no choice about whether to join the war. They were ordered to do so and so it's hard to blame them for their actions. They were working under orders."
The raison d'être of the film is to try to prevent others from repeating the mistakes of history. Guédiguian is driven by a fear that the latest generation of Europeans has lost interest in the Second World War. In a poignant moment during the film, Missak points out that the Armenian war had been forgotten by the time of Hitler's rise to power. The director states: "I have this fear, it's true, that this latest generation has started to forget the war. This always seems to happen after two generations as the younger generation starts to lose contact with the past."
The response of the director to this problem is to make movies that highlight how the past, present and future are all tied together.