Marcel Marceau’s War

Jesse Eisenberg in Resistance (IFC Films)
Mime, Nazis, and superannuated Boy Scouts — what could go wrong?

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE M arcel Marceau was the most renowned mime on earth when he died in 2007, but long before that, during the war, he joined the French Resistance and helped some French Jewish children slip over the border to Switzerland. The movie about this, boringly called Resistance, combines clowning under Nazi rule with Alpine escape, so it’s Life Is Beautiful meets The Sound of Music. So call it Life Is Beautiful, Even If There’s a Mime Present. Or maybe The Sound of Mime.

Resistance (which is offered via video-on-demand services) successfully channels the spirit of mime in that it is completely unbearable. The more light-hearted it tries to be, the more anvil-like it is, and the more sobering it tries to be, the funnier it is. It went awry at an early stage: When the middle-aged actor Jesse Eisenberg was hired to play 15-year-old Marceau. Eisenberg is a reliable screen performer, but the spectrum of roles for which he is suited is about as wide as a balance beam. He’s not capable of playing a character terribly different from himself, so he’s fine playing an affectless New Yorker born in the Eighties, but he can’t do anything to alter his voice or his general manner meaningfully. His French accent is questionable. As a mime, he looks like somebody imitating a mime.

The story is almost completely made up, beginning in 1938 Strasbourg, where Marcel Mangel is growing up the son of a kosher butcher. (For reasons I could not fathom, the old man also has a sign in his window reading “charcuterie,” which means pork products.) Father is a bit of a philistine: Observing his boy painting, he says, “I just never understood why there’s anyone doing it, even when it’s great.” Marcel’s reply is a classic: “Why do you go to the bathroom?” he says, anticipating the work of Jackson Pollock.

Marceau and his girlfriend Emma (Clémence Poésy) look after the kids as storm clouds loom. Poésy (37) is even older than Eisenberg, so it is fairly bizarre to watch them both scamper around in Boy Scout and Girl Scout uniforms with short pants pretending to be teenagers (the Scouts helped organize aid for Jewish children). Neighbors fret over what’s about to happen: “One extremely popular leader is preparing the most powerful army in the history of Europe to conquer a neighboring country,” says one fellow. Thanks, Basil Exposition, but I doubt residents of the border town of Strasbourg in 1938 need to be told this, or that they are “one mile from Nazi Germany.” Marcel lifts the kids’ spirits by goofing on Hitler with a small mustache and Nazi uniform, then gets the squealing children to join him by jumping into a pool of water fully clothed. Is the goal to die of pneumonia before the Nazis can kill them?

After the invasion, everyone flees to Limoges, in the southwest of France, which is under Vichy rule, and Marceau (who has changed his name from Mangel so as not to be identifiably Jewish) becomes a forger. In the critical moment, this is how he announces he must cast away clownish things and join the French Resistance: “I don’t want to keep, like, running without doing something about it.” Like, that doesn’t sound very 1940s. Or very French.

What little is known about Marceau’s Resistance activity isn’t all that exciting, so writer-director Jonathan Jakubowicz pumps it up with touches you’d expect to see in one of those Nicolas Cage movies that, per contractual arrangement, can only be shown on airplanes to passengers who have ordered two or more drinks. Here’s Marcel rescuing a truckload of friends who have been rounded up to be sent to a death camp: He gets a mouthful of gasoline, sprays it through an open flame and roasts an unsuspecting German soldier guarding the truck. Since there’s another German soldier standing four feet away, Marceau would have been shot many times for this if he had tried it, so Jakubowicz covers his unlikely escape with lots of sloppy, frantic editing. Minutes later, in another obviously made-up scene, Marceau catches his girlfriend as she’s about to throw herself under a train.

Even the captions are for idiots. Jakubowicz opens a scene with the title, “Berlin, Nazi Germany.” Not regular Germany? This sets up an interlude in which Klaus Barbie (Matthias Schweighoefer), a local German officer and aspiring war criminal later to be known as “the Butcher of Lyon,” wanders into a gay Third Reich drinking party and laments how bad morals have started to afflict Nazism. His rant against “Cripples, retards, Communists, socialists, trade-union members and other vermin!” serves no dramatic purpose whatsoever but is good for a laugh. Later, when his wife tries to get him to ease up on being quite so Nazi-ish, he whines, “I didn’t get here by being nice to our enemies.” World War II is a bit too large for Jakubowicz; perhaps his next job should be a little more modest, like developing dialogue for reality television.

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