Lacombe, Lucien (1974)

Dir. Louis Malle. Starring Pierre Blaise, Aurore Clément, Holger Löwenadler

Lucien (Blaise) has five days off from his job mopping floors and emptying bedpans in a local hospital. He hasn’t called his mother (Gilberte Rivet) to tell her that he’s coming home for a while, and when he gets there he is more or less chased out of the house by the guy his mom has taken up with. He shoots some rabbits, decapitates a chicken with three blows to the neck, and then takes the feathers off the thing. Neither of these are warning signs (although it turns out the rabbits are poached as opposed to fairly hunted) on their own for a rude farm boy, but for the fact we’ve seen him shoot down, with a slingshot, a little bird in a tree. Bored, with a rabbit in tow, he finds the local schoolmaster, Peyssac (Jean Bousquet) and offers his service to the Resistance. Days later, perhaps less, he is a member of the Gestapo instead. In a film which boldly points a finger at collaboration, this is the most subtle and audacious accusation of all: perhaps even the Resistance was filled with young men who thought it was cool as opposed to vital. In the end, it hardly matters why one joined the Resistance, for doing one’s part to eradicate Nazism from one’s homeland is praiseworthy. Malle is not taking aim at individuals, but at legends. Lacombe, Lucien is a refutation of heroism and honor. It needs the scene where Peyssac refuses Lucien’s application, primarily but probably not exclusively on the basis of age, to fill out that thesis. We need to see that the Resistance had a shot at this kid who knows nothing of ideology and cares less; we need to be awfully careful about assuming the Resistance itself was full of Rolands and Joans.

Lucien only appears to have a single outfit in the early part of the film; he wears a white shirt stained with the dirt one collects from outdoor work, brown pants, and suspenders. Once he’s become an accepted piece of the Gestapo, he is taken by one of the courtlier members of that crowd, Jean-Bernard (Stéphane Bouy) to the Jewish tailor, Albert Horn (Löwenadler) to have a suit made. Jean-Bernard is not in the room when Albert asks Lucien what he thinks of golf trousers. Lucien doesn’t respond, Albert sets it down for a moment, but then asks again; it’s a moment that speaks to his polite caution, which, along with his longtime association with Jean-Bernard, is the reason he hasn’t been shipped off to a concentration camp. He understands how to treat a customer, but he also understands how to treat someone who has the drop on him. Golf trousers are elegant on a young man, he says to Lucien, and eventually Lucien cannot hide what we all suspect: “What are golf trousers?” he asks. Lucien would have no good way to know what golf trousers are, given his upbringing and background; indeed, it’s entirely possible that “golf” is an entirely foreign concept to him. There’s no sort of moral angle to this—Lacombe, Lucien is not exactly a greenhouse to grow bourgeois hobbies—and so it works as a hint for us. What Lucien has not experienced with his senses is beyond his comprehension. (It makes his gift of a case of champagne for France, played by Clement, a comically pathetic one. He is very proud of this gift, which he must have learn to appreciate somewhere as a ritzy romantic one; perhaps this is something all Frenchmen know instinctively. In any case, the gift falls flat because he can only connect “champagne” with “good time.” He opens a bottle immediately. France is unimpressed: it’s warm, and it’s a bad year at that.) When Lucien dooms Peyssac by coolly and blithely telling a Nazi collaborator that he’s the leader of the Resistance where he comes from, he cannot imagine that this will end in Peyssac’s torture and, presumably, death. He has no experience with people who would turn in a Resistance leader, and he doesn’t recognize that these people would belong to that group. One of the overwhelming conclusions that one is forced to draw from Lacombe, Lucien is that the title character is stupid, and his stupidity is based in his total lack of imagination, his dearth of intuition.

It is almost certainly his stupidity that lands him into this situation, but the movie is coy about why he sticks around with the Germans and their water-carriers. The temptation is to return to his upbringing, but then again there are plenty of individuals from his region who are loyal members of the Resistance for more, presumably, than the opportunity to shoot other folks. His stupidity bars him from ideology such as that typical Nazi rhetoric employed by Faure (René Bouloc), who appears to be the only real idealist among the Gestapo. It may be his temperament, which is sullen, quick to take offense, and even quicker to take something as an entitlement. (There’s a greediness in his eyes about the food he gets from other people which plays up the entitlement.) However, there are plenty of French Gestapo allies who seem to be convivial and even amiable. Jean-Bernard is dating a film actress, Betty (Loumi Iacobesco), who is perpetually smiling; the chief of the bunch, Tonin (Jean Rougerie), is too drunk to feel much of anything short of a niggling irony. The simplest solution is that Lucien simply enjoys exerting control over others. This is why he shoots more rabbits than he needs and beats them with his hands when he catches them; this is why he smacks a chicken’s head off rather than using a hatchet. He likes to cause pain. He likes to know that he is on the fun end of causing pain. And the reason that he’s not simply some sociopath is that there appear to be plenty of people, most of whom are named above, who are not sociopaths and who leap on any chance to make themselves more powerful and fearsome. It doesn’t take long for Lucien to learn that “German police” is a magical incantation.  (Again, it’s something he’s witnessed the might of, not something he’s guessed at.) He has a suspicion that it’ll work when he pushes France ahead in line to get her shopping done; when he says the words to a local cop, he makes an excuse for coming over and then bails on the situation. It ranks as one of his most mature moments. The nearest he comes to sophistication is when Albert checks in on the suit he’s made. Do you like your golf trousers? he asks. Realizing that he can answer in the negative, Lucien does just that, and better still he knows he’s allowed to do so.

The last half-hour of the film is made in much the same way that the previous hundred minutes or so were made. It does not introduce any new characters of note. But it feels entirely different all the same; it’s 1944, the radio is filled with reports of the inexorable American advance, and the world crumbles. The members of the French Gestapo outfit Lucien’s gotten himself in with are killed almost to a man; in a visit with his mother, she shows him that the folks back home are making miniature coffins imprinted with a swastika and “Lucien.” Albert tries to assert himself with Lucien as Lucien makes inroads with France. (It’s worth noting that Albert is not originally French, and so the daughter named “France” after his adopted home makes sense. All the same, naming her France is one of those screenwriting choices which is unbelievably bold, and I wouldn’t argue long with someone who said that such a name makes Lacombe, Lucien a little too clever.) Albert makes a mistake which seems unthinkable; he goes directly to Gestapo headquarters after hiding out in his dusty, dim apartment for months, although he finds Faure waiting for him rather than Jean-Bernard. Faure demands to see Albert’s real papers (i.e., “I want to see ‘Jew’ written on them”) rather than the admittedly false ones Albert was fixed up with. A little reflection casts Albert’s decision as suicide by the police, and doubtless he goes to his death wearing a beautifully made suit. Most importantly, Lucien gives up the Nazis when he wants something more than the power they can afford him. He helps a soldier collect the remaining Jewish citizens of the city, including France and her grandmother; after the Horns pack, Lucien shoots the soldier, absconds with the Horns, and steals a car to drive them out to the country. He is in his element once again; now there is nothing to know but the rural lifestyle that helps him kill another rabbit, lay out in the grass, and roll around in the attic. Without him, the Horns would starve; the qualities which signified some of the worst of Lucien are now useful again. Only some words on the screen let us know that Lucien would be executed for treason. What happened to Frenchmen who collaborated and had more useful skills for the postwar world, Malle seems to say, was likely more clement.

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