Director: Jonathan Jakubowicz
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Clémence Poésy, Matthias Schweighöfer, Ed Harris
Runtime: 2 hrs 1 min
Released By: Shaw Organisation
Opening Day: 6 August 2020
Synopsis: All Marcel Marceau (Jesse Eisenberg) wants is a life for the arts. Working at his father's butcher shop during the day, the talented mime tries to make his dream come true on the city's small stages and to win the affections of politically active Emma (Clémence Poésy). To please her, Marcel agrees to join a dangerous mission that will change the course of his life forever: they want to save 123 Jewish orphans from the grasp of the German Nazis and the ruthless Obersturmführer of the SS Klaus Barbie (Matthias Schweighöfer) and take them across the border to Switzerland. Together with Emma, Marcel joins the French resistance to stand firmly against the atrocities of the war. His art will prove the greatest weapon against the horrors of war...
The title may not bear the name of its subject, but ‘Resistance’ is ultimately a biography of the iconic French mime Marcel Marceau during World War II.
Convincingly portrayed by Jesse Eisenberg, Marcel was the son of a Jewish butcher who was living the life of a struggling artist in the late 1930s before he joined the French resistance movement, performing in Strasbourg’s cabaret clubs by imitating the antics of the great Charlie Chaplin.
Marcel’s introduction to the crueller realities of life come one day when he decides to tag along with his politically active cousin Georges (Géza Röhrig), encountering a group of Jewish orphans which the Save the Children foundation had diverted away from a concentration camp.
Not knowing how to manage them, Marcel entertains the kid nearest to him with an unrehearsed pantomime, expanding quickly to a full-blown routine watched by every kid in the empty castle they are holing up in. Soon, Marcel finds himself teaching the kids routines in the event of a German invasion, which as we all know becomes awfully real.
The German occupation of northern France sees the narrative shift gears, focusing less on Marcel and the orphans than Marcel and his fellow resisters; these include Emma (Clémence Poesy), whom Marcel has a gentle crush on, his brother Alain (Felix Moati), and Alain’s girlfriend Mila (Vica Kerekes). Their paths cross with the sadistic Klaus Barbie (Matthias Schweighöfer), also known as the ‘Butcher of Lyon’, and the second act finds them engaged in a cat-and-mouse game with Klaus with inevitably painful consequences.
This detour into Holocaust movie tropes frankly does writer-director Jonathan Jakubowicz’s film no favours. Not only does it serve up such superfluous scenes such as Klaus lining up a bunch of clowns in an empty swimming pool to be executed, it also turns Klaus into a cliched or worse, cartoonish villain, whether is it taunting Emma to reveal the location of the other Resistance fighters as he flays Mila or playing the piano before proceeding to personally execute suspected members of the Resistance.
While it is laudable that the movie does not depict Marcel as a glorified saviour, it also loses its focus on its subject’s experiences as a reluctant war hero, someone who more or less stumbled into the movement and had to thereafter find his own conviction to stay amidst the sacrifices of those close to him. Without that character focus, the movie simply enters conventional war-film territory, devoid of the distinction of being Marcel’s lens into the events of World War II.
Thankfully, the plotting regains firmer footing in the last act, which sees Marcel lead a harrowing mission to sneak a small group of orphans through the Alps to Switzerland. There are a number of well-executed sequences here, including a train stop where Marcel and the kids come face to face with Klaus’ contingent, and a game of hide-and-seek in the wintry Alps where they once again have to evade Klaus and his band of German soldiers. It is in these scenes that we see Marcel’s talents put to safeguard the children, which should have been the emphasis of the film through and through.
That you do not lose interest in the film despite its disjointedness is credit to Eisenberg, who subdues his usual nervous energy for an honest and committed performance. As Marcel, Eisenberg has clearly invested effort in learning a few mime routines, and even though the film does not give him nearly enough time to demonstrate them, it is still an impressive showing. He is joined by a solid supporting cast, including an affecting Poesy and a devilishly debonair Schweighöfer.
So even though Jakubowicz doesn’t always make the best creative choices in his retelling (which besides all else we’ve described, includes a strange framing device by way of Ed Harris’ Gen. George Patton addressing the ranks of the US troops who have just liberated France), ‘Resistance’ retains the power of its source material as a compelling account of Marcel’s wartime exploits. It doesn’t need to extol the man, but one hopes it could have also been a more incisive character study without the distractions of unnecessary subplots, especially since it is a story that is rich enough as it is.
(Lacking the focus needed for a truly gripping character study, 'Resistance' nonetheless remains compelling enough thanks to the power of its source material and an emphatic performance by Jesse Eisenberg)
Review by Gabriel Chong