Good intentions do not a good movie make. While the true story behind the World War II drama Resistance is inspiring, the film itself is meandering, bizarre, and ultimately underwhelming.
Written and directed by Jonathan Jakubowicz, Resistance begins in Germany circa 1938, where a young Jewish girl named Elsbeth (Game of Thrones scene-stealer Bella Ramsey) is tucked in by her father right before he is ripped out of their home by Nazis and shot to death in the street. But this resilient girl is not the protagonist of this story. Abruptly, the film leaps to France, where a capering clown named Marcel (Jesse Eisenberg) performs at a cabaret, much to the chagrin of his father, who comes from a long line of butchers. With his signature sulking, Eisenberg defends his artistry in a series of scenes, while his father begs him to be practical, follow in the family business, and marry a nice Jewish girl. Then, the Nazis arrive.
Hitler’s forces aren’t here for invasion just yet. Instead, they’re dropping off 123 Jewish orphans to a group of Jewish Boy Scouts, who’ve negotiated to take them in. The clown is invited along with the hopes he’ll put the traumatized children’s minds at ease as they settle into their new home in a new nation. Initially, Marcel is annoyed that his art is considered kids stuff– but soon, he discovers his mime act is a miracle for these kids. Leap to a year later, he’s a major part of their lives. Leap again, he’s joined the French Resistance to help usher these children out of occupied France and off to the safety of Switzerland. Oh, and by the way, the clown/rebel learns to forge passports, and officially changes his name from ” Marcel Mangel” to “Marcel Marceau.” Yeah, this is a weirdly sly biopic about how the world’s most famous mime spent WWII rescuing hundreds of orphans from the genocidal grip of Nazis.
Still, this isn’t only Marceau’s story. As it crudely skips through time, Resistance also unfurls the experiences of the orphaned Elsbeth, a beautiful rebel/love interest named Emma (Clémence Poésy), and the notorious Nazi, Klaus Barbie (Matthias Schweighöfer). It’s as if Jakubowicz couldn’t decide if his story was about this unique band of French Resistance fighters, the children they saved, or Marceau, and so he haphazardly split the difference. This makes for a movie that has a halted pace and the emotional resonance of a radish.
Don’t get me wrong, there are harrowing elements: captures, executions, and torture of Jewish people, as well as mentions of genocide and concentration camps. However, Jakubowicz keeps much of this violence offscreen, and when he doesn’t, the deaths are bloodless. He reserves graphic violence for that inflicted on the Nazis, which perhaps is meant to feel cathartic (even as Marcel preaches survival over vengeance). However, all the horror of Nazi oppression is heartbreaking on its own, owing nothing to the filmmaking. The story sputters because Jakubowicz spends so little time on character development as he skips through WWII with haphazard title cards, graphics of maps, and clunky dialogue like, “I’ve been here a year!”
We watch Marcel go from pretentious cabaret performer to selfless war hero, but the journey is missing transitions between big moments. Resistance bounds from meeting the kids to heroics, with so little in between that it’s hard to appreciate his change of mind. Perhaps Jakubowicz felt the screen time that could go to nuance must be sacrificed to the plots of Elsbeth, Emma, and Klaus; if so, that feels a waste as each is thinly sketched. Still, the performers make a noble effort to overcome.
As on Game of Thrones, Ramsey’s penetrating stare is riveting, which brings a life to Elsbeth the script doesn’t muster. She’s chiefly a tool to represent all the children, being very aware of the Nazi threat yet defiantly cheerful at any opportunity. She is the hope and future that must be fought for, but she’s more symbol than human. Meanwhile, Poésy has a dazzling screen presence, but is given little to do but be steely in the face of Nazis and flirty with Marcel; when she finally does have a big, dramatic moment, it feels woefully ungrounded. To Schweighöfer’s credit, he plays Klaus with an unnerving intensity, spouting threats and slurs in German and English. However, a subplot with a simpering wife and squalling baby does little to paint him as anything outside of a lethal zealot of white supremacy. So why even bother with his wife pleading that he show mercy? Perhaps to show not all Nazis were that bad? Pass.
Then there’s Eisenberg, who feels miscast here. He has the range to be silly and serious, as we’ve seen in Zombieland and The Social Network, and an elegance in his mime work that pays decent tribute to Marceau’s craft. However, there’s an undeniable manliness in the movements of Marceau, even in his capering, which Eisenberg lacks. This element is sorely missed, as it made Marceau’s physicality a fascinating collision of grace and masculinity. Without it, Eisenberg feels like a cheap imitation. And speaking of cheap imitations, that accent. Though the film is set in Germany, France, and Switzerland, much of the cast speaks English throughout, and the accents vary–more or less–accordingly. Then there’s Eisenberg, whose accent is on a journey all its own, with destinations unknown.
Making matters worse is a script that feels a few drafts away from final, full of cringe-inducing scenes that have all the sophistication and subtlety of a bull in a butcher shop. There are several eyeroll-worthy exchanges where Marcel’s father berates his passion for performing; in one, he calls him “a clown dressed like Hitler in a whore house,” to which Marcel, corrects, “It’s Chaplin in a cabaret!” In another, the mime compares his craft to his father using the toilet: “My body gives me no choice!” There will be more. The flirtation scenes with Emma are just as clumsy, but with the added cringe of zero sexual chemistry. While the rest of the cast tries to ground this rough material with pathos, Eisenberg’s jittery chipmunk energy feels jarring throughout.
It’s a shame. This story is sensational, one of humanity, faith, and resilience triumphing over hatred and genocide. Resistance should be heart-wrenching and inspiring. Instead, it’s insipid and a tad insulting. The experiences of children who lost their homes, family, and childhoods to the Nazi conquest are haphazardly condensed into a bumbling B-plot. The French Resistance fighters are reduced to an eccentric backdrop for the Marceau story, which is mutilated through jolting time leaps, awful dialogue, and an astonishingly miscast leading man. Jakubowicz’s ambitions far outreached his skills, making for a movie that is more mess than moving.