It might sound like a backhanded compliment to say that Jesse Eisenberg’s antic performance as French mime Marcel Marceau is the best thing about Jonathan Jakubowicz’s “Resistance,” but it’s not. Well, it’s not a backhanded compliment to Eisenberg, anyway. The giddy standout of a bizarre and half-baked Holocaust thriller that’s otherwise absent any clear sense of self, the star of “The Social Network” is an inspired — if also logical — choice to play another Jewish icon who changed the world from behind the flat screen of their own neuroses. And for the better, in this case.
If only this film made any real use of history’s famous mime. Few people know that Marceau helped thousands of orphaned children escape the Nazis before he ever painted his face white, but Jakubowicz only uses that incredible factoid as the hook for a shoddy and generic war saga about the Jewish Resistance in France (Organisation Juive de Combat, or OJC); Marceau plays such an uncertain part in the movie around him that it’s easy to forget what he’s doing there in the first place. Too broad to work as a biopic, but also tethered to its iconic protagonist in a way that squeezes the entire movie into his shadow, “Resistance” is lost in the muddy water somewhere between a superhero origin story and a heroic portrait of artistic survival.
A Venezuelan director whose most recent feature was the 2016 boxing drama “Hands of Stone,” Jakubowicz opens “Resistance” with the same leaden touch that defined that film. And also, improbably, with a cameo appearance from one of the same actors: It’s Kristallnacht, and an Orthodox German Jew played by Édgar Ramírez is trying to soothe his scared young daughter (“Game of Thrones” breakout Bella Ramsey). “Why do they hate us?” she asks. “Hitler is just blaming us for the suffering of the working class,” he answers before the Gestapo burst in to kill him. Against all odds, that’s not even the clumsiest part of the prologue, as the next scene manages to shoe in Ed Harris as a speechifying General Patton — the first half of a needless framing device that nevertheless anticipates the hoariness to come.
From there, the action skips forward a few years so that the story can refocus on a bright young Strasbourg man Marcel Mangel (the 35-year-old Eisenberg is playing someone who was actually 15 at the time, but the character’s age never comes up and the actor’s naive impertinence helps smooth over the difference). Marcel’s an arrogant butcher’s son who walks around town like he’s hiding from paparazzi whenever he’s not working at the counter of his stern father’s shop (“The Counterfeiters” star Karl Markovics does the honors as Charles Mangel), and he dreams of being a serious comic actor like his hero Charlie Chaplin, but his dad is too scared of Hitler to see the humor in “The Great Dictator.” “You’re a useless bum who wants to be a clown but has the muscles of a ghost,” he says.
However, it’s not strength that Marcel needs so much as a proper stage. He’s fond of quoting Duchamp’s insistence that “art can happen anywhere,” and he just needs to figure out where anywhere might be. Lucky for him, he’s in the kind of movie that makes actual history feel like the stuff of bad screenwriting, and so his cousin Georges (“Son of Saul” star Géza Röhrig) shows up to tell him about the gaggle of Jewish orphans (Ramsey’s character included) who he and the Save the Children Foundation just diverted away from a concentration camp, and into an empty castle on the other side of the border. Marcel tags along one day, only to find a rapt audience for his unrehearsed pantomime. It turns out that kids are the only one who don’t consider shtick to be completely ridiculous, and watching Marcel transform their empty hideout into an invisible funhouse of unchecked imagination is the first joy these boys and girls have known since their parents were killed.
And just like that, Marcel has become a member of the Resistance. It’s unclear if he’s motivated by natural empathy, his crush on the kids’ mousy blonde chaperon (Clémence Poesy), or simply an amateur mime’s need to keep his small fanbase alive, but Eisenberg sells the idea that Marcel belongs with the movement. Counterbalancing his nervous energy with the stillness of a tightrope walker, the actor recreates Marceau’s ability to create entire realities out of thin air. Or, as the film puts it: “To make the invisible, visible. And the visible, invisible.” That’s a handy talent when you’re trying to hide from the Nazis in plain sight, and one that Marcel does his best to teach the kids as they make their way through the country and towards the unoccupied territory beyond.
“Resistance” might have been well-served to travel along a more linear journey to freedom, but the story gets tripped up by a number of nauseating Holocaust movie tropes as it moves into metropolitan France. The children fade into the background as more action-packed OJC missions come into the fore. Jakubowicz struggles to find ways of threading Marceau’s unique skill set into assassinations and the like, and while it might seem odd that he’s looking for them in the first place, a more Marvel-ized hero would have been the film’s only way of justifying its cartoonish supervillain. Klaus Barbie was as evil a man as has ever been born, but Matthias Schweighöfer chews so much scenery as the sadistic “Butcher of Lyon” that he must have excreted swastikas at the end of every shooting day; the actor is as handsome and transparently out of place as the litany of Czech locations. Not that Jakubowicz’s script does the actor any favors by frequently derailing the narrative in favor of superfluous torture sequences. Every second we spend watching Barbie execute clowns in an empty swimming pool is one that could have been better spent with the mime he’s actually trying to find.
“Resistance” can’t stop finding new reasons to ignore its protagonist, or flatten him into anonymity. Standard-issue subplots pile up to the point that a climactic scene — in which Marceau actually returns to the spotlight and makes use of his talents to safeguard the children — feel as if it’s been lifted from a different, better film. Eisenberg’s performance is left to affirm that art can truly happen anywhere, but when he’s offscreen it doesn’t seem to happen anywhere else.
IFC will release “Resistance” on VOD on Friday, March 27