Casting chatterbox specialist Jesse Eisenberg in the new biopic of France’s best-known pantomime performer, Marcel Marceau, is tricky. Eisenberg performs fast-talking intelligence to demonstrate cognition and cunning (such as his portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network or his best characterization, Lex Luthor in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice). The role of Marcel Marceau should have been a highpoint of Eisenberg’s career ambitions the way playing Charlie Chaplin was for Robert Downey Jr. Unfortunately, Eisenberg appreciates Marceau’s art only for its historical utility, showing how he outwitted the Nazis during World War II. This view of Marceau as Pied Piper, who helps Jewish children escape France to freedom in Switzerland, bears the opportunistic title Resistance.
In our current political climate, that title is off-putting as well as unimaginative. And the film, written and directed by Jonathan Jakubowicz, raises suspicions about easy manipulation due to its obvious point-making: Marceau, who changed his surname from Mangel to hide his Jewish ethnicity on a forged passport, is first shown delighting a group of orphan refugees by doing a silent routine with a bagel to the heart-tugging tune of Chopin’s Nocturne in E-flat Minor, op. 9, no. 2.
That saccharine comic bit feels perversely mawkish rather than being an expression of ethnic creativity; it’s as if Jakubowicz had no memory of the shameless Oscar-bait movie Life Is Beautiful in which Roberto Benigni clowned his way to a Nazi concentration camp. Jakubowicz could also be following the example of Jojo Rabbit, a prime illustration of #resistance era wacko-politics, cheap sentiment, and historical revision. (Marceau even tells a young girl that “life is beautiful.” His brother and other young Jewish scouts who later form the resistance underground weirdly recall the distasteful Hitler youth sequence of Jojo Rabbit with which Taika Waititi has poisoned our memories.)
Jakubowicz’s historical inanity is revealed by the film’s multiple framing devices: a flashback to a doomed German Jewish family reading an ironic “happily ever after” storybook, then a flashforward to General George S. Patton (Ed Harris) after the war, introducing his troops to the heroic Marceau as “one of those unique human beings that make your sacrifices and your heroism completely worth it.”
Mel Brooks paid worthier tribute by giving Marcel Marceau the only speaking role in Silent Movie (1976), devising a rebellious jest to contradict the notorious sentimentality that had come to define Marceau’s career. Eisenberg, who had shown admirable ethnic sensitivity in the Orthodox Jewish drama Holy Rollers (2010), sentimentalizes Marceau as a garrulous pontificator. “Make the invisible visible and make the visible invisible,” he tells the orphans while rehearsing for their getaway and their The Sound of Music–style mountain trek. Then he offers this: “What’s the best way to resist? It’s not to kill them; they are ready to die. If we want to resist, we have to make sure more Jews survive.”
But Marceau’s craft does not survive this movie. Jakubowicz uses grandiloquent, important-movie camerawork, even when staging Nazi S-M atrocities in an overly photogenic swimming pool at Klaus Barbie’s infamous Hotel Terminus. Marceau’s climactic exhibition before the audience of Patton’s GIs turns out to be surprisingly unimpressive and maudlin. Eisenberg is neither thin nor agile enough to represent the delicacy that many, including Michael Jackson, admired about Marceau. Despite the help of three choreographers — Loren Eric Salm, Tomas Lagierski, and Dan Kamin — Eisenberg is merely breathy and teary. Better that he had studied Jean-Louis Barrault’s mime Baptiste from Marcel Carné’s WWII survivalist masterpiece Les Enfants du Paradis.
Resistance is available on digital platforms and cable VOD.