Les femmes de l’ombre (Female Agents) (Director: Jean-Paul Salomé): Films about World War 2 resistance fighters are very hot right now. In the past few years, we’ve had Sophie Scholl: The Final Days (Germany), Black Book and Winter in Wartime (The Netherlands), Flame and Citron (Denmark), and Max Manus (Norway), to name just a few. Now from France comes Les femmes de l’ombre, or as it’s more prosaically titled in English, Female Agents.
Tellingly, though, the French title, which translates roughly to “the women in the shadows,” references perhaps the greatest film about the Resistance ever made, Jean-Pierre Melville’s L’armée de l’ombres (Army of Shadows) (review). It might be an homage to the Melville film, but it actually ends up making Les femmes de l’ombre look even less substantial.
Sophie Marceau plays Louise Desfontaines, a seasoned Resistance fighter who has just lost her husband in a shootout with the Nazis during an operation. Soon she’s in London meeting her brother, who’s fighting with the British Special Operations Executive (SOE). He recruits her for a crucial mission just a few days before the planned D-Day invasion of France: rescue a captured geologist from a German-occupied hospital before the Nazis can torture him into revealing information about the invasion plans.
There follows a Dirty Dozen-style recruiting campaign, in which she bullies, coerces, and blackmails three other women into helping: Jeanne, a tough prostitute on death row for killing her pimp, innocent Gaelle who happens to be an explosives expert, and Suzy, a former showgirl who has a broken engagement to a powerful Gestapo officer in her past.
After parachuting into occupied France, they join Jewish noblewoman Maria who is already undercover as a nurse at the hospital. The actual escape is exciting and breathlessly paced. Unfortunately, the entire film feels similarly breathless. Plot details quickly became hard to follow, and many times I found myself what exactly was happening.
Characterizations were fairly simple, as well. There is an attempt to make Louise’s complicated relationship with her brother a major theme, but it never feels fully realized. Similarly, Suzy’s impending reunion with her ex-fiancé Colonel Heindrich (Moritz Bleibtreu) should have held more tension, especially when she realizes she’s been recruited to assassinate him.
The film offers a welcome, if belated, tribute to those women who took up arms, often when their husbands or brothers or fathers had already been killed, to fight Nazi occupiers. And it’s handsomely photographed and briskly paced, too. But the viewer never really gets inside these characters to feel the mixture of national pride, anger, hatred, as well as fear and desperation that must have driven them to such acts of bravery.