Like the revelation that the dowdy French-cuisine evangelist Julia Child worked for American intelligence operations during World War II, there’s something quaint and almost comic about the historical nugget upon which Jonathan Jakubowicz’s Resistance is based: Before he became the most famous mime artist in history, Marcel Marceau worked in the French Resistance, forging passports and smuggling Jewish children across borders to save them from Nazi exterminators.
But though Marceau’s artistic ideals are central to the film, Resistance happily avoids novelty, making its hero one credible human among many in a wartime tale that, though largely familiar in its feel, dramatizes a question that has become urgent for many in recent years: How does one best resist hatred — by fighting its proponents, or rushing to assist its targets? The two may not be mutually exclusive; but the pic, relying on a sympathetic lead performance by Jesse Eisenberg, champions the latter approach.
We meet Eisenberg’s Marceau when he is still Marcel Mangel in 1938, working in his father’s Strasbourg butcher shop while quietly pursuing his ambitions as an actor and artist. An intellectual, he uses Freudian philosophy to try to make himself more desirable to the woman he hopes to marry, Clemence Poesy’s Emma. But she’s more interested in the growing menace beyond France’s borders: She’s working with Marcel’s cousin Georges (Geza Rohrig) and brother Alain (Felix Moati) to find a home for scores of German children whose parents have just been killed by Nazi forces.
Convinced to help move these kids into a makeshift orphanage, Marcel almost accidentally begins using his gifts to lift their spirits. A truly charming episode finds him segueing from a small gag into a full-blown routine involving every child in the room. But viewers made uneasy by Life Is Beautiful-style pairings of whimsy and genocide needn’t fear: Though the mime’s talents and his bond with kids remain important throughout, the movie does not attempt to keep us charmed. Though it goes unsaid, one can even imagine a selfish reason drawing Marcel into the dangerous action to come: With the adults around him mocking his interest in being a “clown” (he hates the word), it’s little wonder that he becomes invested in the well-being of youngsters who do appreciate him.
As adults discuss the possibility of a German invasion, Alain becomes convinced they will have to split the children up, lest a Jewish orphanage become an easy target for anti-Semitic violence. When the north of France is indeed occupied, they all flee to Limoges in Vichy — placing children in the care of sympathetic families and Christian churches there.
Briefly freed from childcare, the pic’s adults now enter more familiar war-film territory: Jakubowicz’s screenplay quickly offers perilous adventures some viewers may suspect were exaggerated for their benefit. (Marcel, for instance, rescues his brother from soldiers by setting one on fire in a public square.) The movie begins to focus on the villainy of Klaus Barbie, the Gestapo’s “Butcher of Lyon” (Matthias Schweighofer), sometimes resorting to unnecessary cliches — as when it intercuts between a chorus of children singing “Ave Maria” and Barbie’s executioners, gunning prisoners down in a drained swimming pool. Barbie’s men are on the hunt for Resistance members, and commit some crimes horrific enough to push Marcel to a moral crossroads: Would those who have been murdered want us to risk our lives trying to punish their killers, or to risk our lives trying to save their orphaned children?
The film’s answer is obvious and persuasive, and its last act watches the first of what we’re told will be many crossings — a nail-biter mission sneaking kids through the Alps to Switzerland. In a framing device, Gen. George S. Patton (Ed Harris) stands before his troops in 1945, explaining the nature of bravery and introducing Marceau as a prime example. The general leaves the stage to make way for what he says is the mime’s first official public performance — a brief, haunted expression of solidarity between the artist and those who helped destroy the Nazi menace.
Production company: Pantaleon Films
Distributor: IFC Films [Available now on digital and VOD platforms]
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Clemence Poesy, Geza Rohrig, Felix Moati, Vica Kerekes, Bella Ramsey, Matthias Schweighofer, Ed Harris
Director-screenwriter: Jonathan Jakubowicz
Producers: Marco Beckmann, Carlos Garcia de Paredes, Claudine Jakubowicz
Director of photography: M.I. Littin-Menz
Production designer: Tomas Voth
Costume designer: Katharina Ost
Editors: Alexander Berner, Jonathan Jakubowicz
Composer: Angelo Milli
Casting director: Maya Kvetny
Rated R, 122 minutes