Resistance turns Marcel Marceau into an action star

Jesse Eisenberg, as Marcel Marceau, in Resistance.

The good thing about a movie suffering from a horrible first scene is that it tends to get better. This is true for the new Holocaust film Resistance, which opens on a happy Jewish family on the eve of Kristallnacht.

The first words of dialogue – this isn’t really a spoiler, because we know what happened on Kristallnacht – come from the father finishing a bedtime story to his teenage daughter: “And they lived happily ever after!” Then the mother jumps in the bed and they all laugh for five seconds before the daughter asks why Germans hate Jews, and her father mumbles something about that not really being true, before Nazis barge in and murder the parents in front of the girl.

It’s all terribly on the nose, and a really unfortunately blunt start to a film whose lead character dedicated his life to nuance. Resistance is about how Marcel Marceau, who later became a global icon of mime as an art form, joined the French Resistance and helped save thousands of Jewish children.

Because this is not actually a French movie, Jesse Eisenberg plays Marceau and everyone speaks English with vaguely French accents, except for the Nazis, who speak German. Given his meagre accent, it’s convenient that Eisenberg – who is Jewish, at least, like Marceau himself – spends so much screen time performing mime acts.

Because it turns out Eisenberg is an excellent mime. The Social Network and Zombieland star fills the role well, and director Jonathan Jakubowicz, a Venezuelan Jew who rose to prominence in his home country in the mid-2000s, loves to keep the camera close on Marceau’s hands as he shapes invisible balls and captivates young Jewish onlookers. Marceau made famous “the art of silence,” which carries a double meaning here, as he and his compatriots spend much of the film in hiding. Ignore Eisenberg’s feeble accent: his expressive facial tics, eyebrow raises and smooth gestures carry the show.

So this is not a verbal film, but a visual one, and Jakubowicz marks a clear style with bold cinematography and stark colours to distinguish this from other Holocaust stories. More than once, a wide-angle lens will swoop around Eisenberg, circling him twice while showcasing France’s endangered colonial beauty. The eye-catching costumes, too, feel almost steampunk by design, emphasizing slim suspenders and bright sunglasses in a way that elevates the movie beyond its period setting.

And yet, inevitably, the actors will open their mouths again, reminding audiences that the dialogue in this film is plain bad, switching between cookie-cutter sentimentality and ham-fisted questions about morality. Most perplexing is the casting of second-billed Ed Harris, who literally appears on screen for no more than two minutes, bookending the film. He’s ostensibly the narrator, telling Marceau’s story to a group of soldiers – but then why doesn’t he narrate the whole film? (Instead of spoken narration, written text fills in viewers about the social and political context.) It’s a bizarre bit of casting and a waste of Harris’s talent.

Then again, by the end, audiences may have already tuned out. The film devolves from character study to all-out thriller, as gun-toting Nazis chase Marceau and the children through the snowy Alps. I don’t know if such a scene really happened. If it was in fact invented for the film, one wonders if Jakubowicz would have been better off taking a cue from Marceau himself and used silence, rather than action, to make a stronger statement.


Resistance is now available on iTunes