Dousing us alternately in treacle and ice water, Jonathan Jakubowicz’s World War II drama, “Resistance,” strains to find a cohesive tone. Outlining the true story of how the young Marcel Marceau, the renowned French actor and mime, helped Jewish orphans survive Nazi-occupied France, the movie aims to wrestle uplift from tragedy.
While Marceau (played by a miscast Jesse Eisenberg) might be the movie’s most novel hook, he’s also one of its least compelling characters. Watched disapprovingly by his father, a Jewish butcher, Marceau (born Marcel Mangel) would rather perform in Strasbourg’s cabaret clubs than chop meat. But when his politically active cousin (Geza Rohrig) persuades him to help care for a group of orphans rescued from Germany, his childlike clowning is a big hit with his traumatized charges.
The problem is that Marceau’s whimsical attempts to entertain the children dilute the growing atmosphere of menace on which the story depends. This is most damaging when the action moves to the south of France and we’re introduced more thoroughly to the smoothly sadistic Gestapo chief Klaus Barbie (Matthias Schweighöfer). We’ve already seen this debonair devil gleefully pummel patrons of a gay club in Berlin; now he’s being serenaded by children singing “Ave Maria” while he coldly slaughters captives in the empty swimming pool of the aptly named Hotel Terminus in Lyon.
These shifts from sugary to shocking are jarring. Yet though Barbie’s operatic violence leans perilously close to parody, Schweighöfer’s urbane-monster routine is wickedly diverting. Much more so than watching our halfhearted hero moon over his gentle crush, Emma (an affecting Clémence Poésy), or teach the orphans to hide by climbing trees. An encounter on a train between the two men — Marceau, now a member of the French resistance, is evacuating children to the Alps — owes the entirety of its suspense to Schweighöfer’s flickering changes of expression. He would have been superb in silent movies.
Bracketed by weirdly redundant scenes of Marceau being celebrated by General George S. Patton (Ed Harris) and his troops, “Resistance” feels disjointed and dated. Lukewarm romantic subplots play like cursory afterthoughts, inserted to pander to audience expectations, and supporting characters are confusingly ill-defined and disconnected from one another. There is no doubt that Marceau’s wartime exploits — he was also a gifted forger who would go on to work with U.S. intelligence services — deserve a biopic. This one, though, is too uncomfortably torn between his comic talents and the horrors against which they were deployed.