“Lacombe, Lucien” (1974, written and directed by Louis Malle, cowritten with the typically vague Patrick Modiano) starts slowly and proceeds at a languid, dreamy pace (with bursts of violence). It is a disconcertingly lyrical look at an 17-year-old Frenchman in rural southwestern France (near the Pyrenees and the Spanish border) who joins the Gestapo in 1944 (that is, after Allied forces have landed in Normandy) and develops a very complex relationships with three Jews (a young woman, her father, and his mother) who are in hiding.
The title character is devoid of ideology. He is rejected by the Resistance and then, being out after curfew because a tire on his bicycle went flat as he was returning to town, he is taken up by collaborators who are attempting to root out and destroy the Resistance. He does not decide to join the other side. They get him drunk and he provides useful information (so that he can’t go home again), and they keep him around. (Similarly, he did not decide to betray his village’s resistance leader, but did so nonetheless.)
Lucien seems to find an outlet for his sadism, an opportunity to swagger like the young collaborator in Georges Dirty Snow. I think that Malle was influenced by the “banality of evil” thesis that Hannah Arendt advanced in Eichman in Jerusalem a decade earlier (and that was illustrated in “The Sorrow and the Pity” in the French context, a few years before “Lacombe, Lucien.”
The surly Lacombe is easily manipulated by those who enroll him in the Gestapo and make him feel important. He is very immature, which makes him dangerous to everyone (including those on the side he has drifted onto more than joined). He lacks the methodical organization of the Germans in the Gestapo, the greed of other French collaborators, and the anti-Semitic ideology of both. None of which make him a nice guy, but, as the cultivated Jewish tailor Albert Horn (Holger Löwenadler ) says, it is difficult to despise him. And it is difficult not to feel some sympathy for Lucien being way over his head and almost endearingly gauche in courting France Horn (the beautiful and sophisticated Parisian played by Aurore Clément). Lucien is something of a bully (indeed a sociopathic sadist) but unsure of himself, a good son, and in many ways close to being an innocent. He is armed and dangerous, but his dangerousness is unpredictable. To be somewhat of an innocent within the Gestapo is still complicity with great evil, which is not mitigated by seeing that Lucien does not understand what he is doing and how what he does affects others beyond making them cower. He does not like being talked down to, but does not notice being tolerated in silence by the vulnerable (Jewish) family he forces himself into.
Pierre Blaise was killed in an auto accident a year after the movie justifiably brought him international acclaim (and augments the aura of doom surrounding Lucien). Löwenadler, Clément , and Therese Giehse the surly grandmother forever playing solitaire are all fascinating to observe, as are the supporting players. (Blaise, Löwenadler, Clément had not acted in films before (Blaise was a country boy who had only seen a few movies, Giehse had appeared in German films dating back to 1928, Löwenadler, was a Swedish stage actor).
Despite running 140 minutes, the film has a frustratingly perfunctory ending that leaves the viewer in doubt about some important matters (typical Modiano…). As Pauline Kael wrote, “There’s no special magic involved in the moviemaking technique—it’s simple, head-on, unforced.” She says that “the movie is in the boy’s face,” though I think it in the faces of the three Horns as much as in Lucien’s. (And I think that what we see through Blais’s “open face” is a blank mind rather than a dark one.) The almost upbeat musical score by Django Reinhardt seems to me to indicate how Lucien would like to see himself and what he is doing. The cinematography by Tonino Delli Colli, particularly of the French countryside, is almost jarringly beautiful (though the interiors are neo-noirish).
“Lacombe, Lucien” was Malle’s favorite of his films film, though his other portrayal of complex French-Jewish relations during the German Occupation, “Aux revoir, les enfants” (1987) garnered the best notices and most rewards and “Le Souffle Au Coeur” (Murmur of the Heart, 1971) and “Viva, María!” (1965) are my own favorite Malle films. The image of the Criterion DVD is excellent with clear monaural sound and easily legible subtitles (though dialogue is fairly sparse).
The single DVD’s extras are only a two-and-a-half minute trailer (that includes some shots not used in the final cut of the film) and Pauline Kael’s New Yorker review from 1974 (also available in her collection Reeling—which should have a “plot spoiler” warning attached to it. (I rarely agree completely with Kael—but also rarely disagree with her completely. I think she is right that Malle lost interest in some of the scripted scenes, particularly the scenes of Lucien and the maid in the Gestapo HQ/hotel where they live and torture. It is also plausible to me that working with nonprofessionals in the leads and adapting the script to Lucien’s emerging character, Malle probably had to cut scenes he needed to tell the story but that didn’t pan out. I did not dare to read what she wrote until after writing my own take, BTW.) The DVD is also available in a four-volume boxed set with “Aux revoir, les enfants” and “Le Souffle Au Coeur” and a whole disc of extras (which I have yet to see), including an interview with Malle’s widow, Candice Bergen.
On the willing collusion with evil, beyond Simenon’s already mentioned Dirty Snow and Arendt’s Eichman in Jerusalem, I would recommend Uwe Timm’s In My Brother’s Shadow. I find these reflection of too much contemporary relevance, even though I realized that “Lacombe, Lucien” was made closer to the time in which the film was set than today. (It is also disconcerting in that I remember the theatrical release of “Lacombe, Lucien” and was already an adult when I saw it the first time.
©2006, 2019, Stephen O. Murray