Dir: Jonathan Jakubowicz. Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Clémence Poésy, Matthias Schweighöfer, Alicia von Rittberg, Félix Moati. 15 cert, 121 mins.
Jesse Eisenberg is a rarity among actors. Not only is he unafraid to peel back the veneer of likeability, but he seems to thrive off the action. Spurred on by his star-making turn as pitiless mega-nerd Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network, he’s used roles in films such as The Double and this year’s Vivarium to colour in all shades of humanity’s prickly qualities – hubris, obsessiveness, and plain rudeness.
It’s intriguing, then, to see him cast in the role of a Second World War hero in writer-director Jonathan Jakubowicz’s Resistance. Here’s an opportunity to delve into the near-unexplored: can only the saintly demonstrate bravery? Or is that a myth we’ve created to help smooth the narratives of history?
Eisenberg is given a curious real-life figure to work with: Marcel Marceau, the world’s most (and only) famous mime, who spent his youth fighting in the French Jewish Resistance and smuggling children out of occupied territory. Eisenberg, in trousers so high that they threaten to swallow his torso altogether, homes in on Marceau’s twitchy demeanour.
Before the war, this young man, born Marcel Mangel, was just another frustrated artist, whose dreams reached far beyond the confines of his father’s butcher shop. The evil brewing in Germany is treated as an inconvenient distraction from nights spent imitating Charlie Chaplin in the local cabaret. That is, until the Nazis arrive at Marceau’s doorstep in Strasbourg.
While Eisenberg’s interests may lie in this vision of shattered self-centredness, his director gives him little room to work with. Resistance is an oddly rudderless film. Marceau may start off abrasive, but his personality melts over the course of the film, replaced with rosy sentimentality, thanks in part to a love affair with a fellow fighter (Clémence Poésy).
Is this a portrait of an artist who finds his place in the darkness? Resistance is careful not to slide into the mawkishness of Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful, but Jakubowicz fails to make much of a meaningful connection. Although there’s a quiet dignity in seeing Marceau teach the children to hide in the trees, like little squirrels, its impact is dampened by an improbable scene in which he attacks a Nazi officer using a circus performer’s prop.
Is Resistance a film about the plight of Jewish children in the Second World War? Its best performance belongs to Game of Thrones’s Bella Ramsey, who plays an orphan trying her best to swallow the trauma of her parents’s death – both victims of Kristallnacht. A light flickers behind her eyes, as she runs frantically between fear, resilience, and hope. But the film is lazily manipulative here, as the sounds of an angelic children’s choir are contrasted with scenes of brutal executions.
And what is the purpose of turning the lens on Klaus Barbie (Matthias Schweighöfer), the Gestapo agent known as the “Butcher of Lyon”? We see him both as the pantomime villain, giddily playing a few notes on the piano before turning to gun down a line of civilians, and as a panicked family man, hastily ushering his wife and baby daughter away from his own atrocities.
Between the bathos, barbarity, and ambitious efforts of its star, Resistance searches blindly for a message that should have been at its very heart from the get-go. This doesn’t seem like the time for cinema to mince its words.