The degree to which French filmmaker Louis Malle was shaped by his childhood experiences during World War II did not become clear until he made the shattering semiautobiographical drama Au revoir, les enfants (1987). Yet Malle’s deeply conflicted feelings about the wartime behavior of his countrymen is fundamental to Lacombe, Lucien, generally considered one of the triumphant achievements of the director’s career. Presented in a clinical style, the drama depicts a French teenager who becomes an operative of the German police force—or, according to the label hung on such people by history, a “collaborator.” Like most of Malle’s films, Lacombe, Lucien avoids simple conclusions and interpretations, even though the script (by Malle and Claude Nedjar) provides distinct milestones along the title character’s spiritual descent. Fitting a filmmaker who smoothly transitioned back and forth between documentaries and fiction films, Malle simply shows a pattern of conduct to the audience, allowing viewers to parse the underlying pathology and the troubling sociopolitical implications.
When the story begins, 18-year-old Lucien (Pierre Blaise) is adrift, working as a janitor at the local school in his hometown and lazily indulging his incipient sadism by killing birds with a slingshot. Eager to give his life focus but not passionately drawn in any particular direction, Lucien tries to join the French anti-Nazi underground, but he’s rebuffed for being too young. Shortly afterward, circumstances bring Lucien into the orbit of Jean-Bernard (Stéphane Bouy), a high-ranking operative of the local collaborator cell. Sensing Lucien’s susceptibility, Jean-Bernard shows off his opulent headquarters—a luxury hotel that the Germans have confiscated. Liquor, money, and women are made available to Lucien in exchange for revealing what he knows about the underground.
Yet even after Lucien sees a neighbor tortured based on information Lucien provided, the impressionable young man allows himself to get pulled deeper into Jean-Bernard’s web. Eventually, a moral conflict emerges when Lucien is introduced to Mr. Horn (Holger Löwendier), a Jewish tailor whom Jean-Bernard uses as a personal clothier. Lucien is infatuated not only by Mr. Horn’s sophistication but also by the tailor’s beautiful daughter, France (Aurore Clément). For a time, Lucien becomes an even worse monster than Jean-Bernard, insinuating himself into the Horn family by gunpoint. Then, as the impending arrival of American troops raises pressure on Germans and collaborators, Lucien must decide which allegiances are most important to him.
On the surface, Lacombe, Lucien is deceptively simplistic because Malle eschews melodrama. Underneath, the movie is complex, disturbing, provocative, and perverse. For instance, Malle has Blaise play the leading role almost completely without affect—Lucien never laughs or smiles until the final sequence—so Lucien is like a blank canvas upon which others project their wartime attitudes. Therefore, when a collaborator says, “War has its good sides, too,” Lucien seems to agree. Yet when Mr. Horn tells Lucien, “Somehow I can’t bring myself to completely despise you,” that makes sense, as well. Lucien is cruel because he was given an opportunity to be cruel, so the troubling notion is that the same person, given a different set of circumstances, could have gone in the opposite direction. This nuanced perspective runs opposite to the usual good-vs.-evil paradigms associated with World War II. Accordingly, even though Lacombe, Lucien is quite long at 138 minutes—and often slowly paced—it’s hard to imagine the film having the same intellectual heft without any of its delicate components.
Lacombe, Lucien: GROOVY