Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
Movie theaters are closed (you may have heard) and so, for the moment, is Scarecrow Video. There are still movies to talk about, however, some of which will be popping up, in one form or another, in the coming weeks. Such a film is Resistance, which, missing its theatrical window because of the pandemic, becomes available (doesn’t have quite the same ring as “opens”) on March 27. For future viewing, keep in mind Scarecrow’s deep resource of WWII movies, and also oddities like Marcel Marceau’s starring role in the cult horror picture Shanks. Here’s a review of Resistance.
In the wake of Resistance, we may all have to re-think our reaction to the scene in Tootsie where Dustin Hoffman shoves a mime to the ground in Central Park. That gag was always a pretty lazy laugh, to be honest (Hoffman’s theater-rat master thespian would’ve done his share of mime training and had sufficient respect for the art), and now here comes a movie that makes you appreciate the profoundly harrowing background of the greatest mime of them all.
I confess I didn’t know much about Marcel Marceau, although I saw him on TV often enough in my youth. But Resistance gives an account (with, I assume, its share of fictionalizing) of how Marceau got involved with the French Resistance during World War II, and his role in ferrying Jewish children out of occupied France and into Switzerland. It’s a helluva story, actually, and good enough that it carries you through quite a few clumsy moviemaking habits.
Marceau was born in Strasbourg, the son of a Jewish butcher from Poland. The father died at Auschwitz. When we meet Marcel (played by Jesse Eisenberg) in the film, he’s busy disappointing his father with his interest in acting and painting; we’re practically in a mini-version of The Jazz Singer here for a while, until the apolitical Marcel is enlisted to tend a group of orphaned Jewish kids.
His big breakthrough scene with the orphans can stand as a measuring stick for how the film falls down. It begins with an effective but dizzying shot, utilizing the kind of wide-angle lens we’re going to see more of thanks to The Favourite, as Marcel is overwhelmed by the influx of hungry, restless children. Our hero-mime, desperate for a way to connect with the despondent kids, quickly builds a pantomime routine out of nothing. The scene gets bigger, and it’s a “movie” scene, an earmarked turning point we recognize: the protagonist unlocking the key to his character. And that would be fine, if formulaic, but writer-director Jonathan Jacubowicz must underline everything three times, including the shameless flogging of reaction shots—not only of the delighted kids, but also of Marcel’s crush, Emma (Clémence Poésy, from In Bruges). Everything in the sequence is pushy and overbearing, when the material itself is compelling enough to succeed without the strong-arm tactics.
Still, a helluva story, as we said. Perhaps wisely, Jacubowicz (the Argentinean director of Hands of Stone) arranges the narrative around a series of suspense set-pieces: a nighttime escape through a forest, a Nazi raid on a Resistance hideout, and, especially, a tense sequence aboard a train, as Gestapo monster Klaus Barbie (Matthias Schweighöfer) snoops around the troop of Jewish kids. We don’t find out too much about Marcel, actually, and less about the others in his orbit (they include Géza Röhrig, the actor from Son of Saul). Thanks to Eisenberg’s efforts, and the soulful presence of Poésy, one thoughtful scene emerges from simply letting the characters sit and talk, as the two debate whether it is better to kill as many Nazis in Lyon as possible, or try to get the children out of harm’s way.
The rest of the film has a competent, generic quality. In small bits, Edgar Ramirez comes and goes quickly, and Ed Harris plays General Patton in a wraparound story. Eisenberg is a little too angular and nervous to capture the real Marceau’s balletic flow, but his customary finger-flinging artiness, that aura of the high-school classmate you had who took the theater just a little too earnestly, serves him well here. I’m glad I saw the film, if only to find out that Marcel Marceau carried this level of darkness behind the white-daubed face.
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.