Appellate Judge Dan Mancini wonders if there are any kindhearted, gentle boys named Lucien.
Our review of 3 Films By Louis Malle: Criterion Collection, published March 28th, 2006, is also available.
"It's very strange. Somehow I can't bring myself to completely despise you."—Albert Horn
Louis Malle's Lacombe, Lucien is often cited as one of the first films to deal head-on with French collaboration during World War II. That it is. Like Zazie dans le Métro, Murmur of the Heart, Au Revoir les Enfants, and Pretty Baby, it is also one of the director's precise examinations of a character's rocky transition from childhood to adulthood. Unfortunately, a lackluster finale leaves the picture unbalanced, resolving the war story well enough but failing to deliver the epiphany toward which its protagonist has been steadily progressing. Though a powerful film, Lacombe, Lucien doesn't quite make the top tier in Malle's oeuvre.
Facts of the Case
In the southwest of France in 1944, a farm boy named Lucien Lacombe (Pierre Blaise, Down the Ancient Staircase) works as an orderly in a nursing home. He tries to join the Resistance but is rejected. Mr. Peyssac (Jean Bousquet, My Favorite Season), a school teacher and leader in the Resistance, tells Lacombe that the movement "is not like poaching, it's like the army," highlighting the frivolity of the boy's motives for wanting to join. Instead, Lacombe is swept up by the Gestapo and becomes an informant, ratting out local members of the underground. Later, he moves on interrogation, torture, and murder.
Eventually, Lucien meets France Horn (Aurore Clément, Apocalypse Now Redux). She is the daughter of Albert Horn (Holger Löwenadler, I Am Curious (Yellow)), a Jewish tailor who was enormously successful in Paris before having to go into hiding. As the couple's affection for one another grows and they plan marriage, Albert is pushed to the end of his rope. But when France is among the Jews rounded up to be sent to a concentration camp, Lucien is left with a difficult choice.
In the opening scene of Lacombe, Lucien, Louis Malle shows us that Lucien has a cruel streak. We watch him slingshot a bird from the window of the nursing home at which he does menial jobs. As a matter of fact, the entire first act of the picture is loaded with death. Lacombe hunts hares with a rifle, and we watch as he delivers death blows in graphic detail. Breaking a chicken's neck so it can be plucked for the dinner pot, he decapitates it and its blood spills to the ground as its body still twitches. The boy helps the men of his family's farm drag a dying horse roughly onto a cart so that it can be shipped off to a glue factory, or wherever dying horses were shipped in provincial France during the war. All of these activities—gruesome and difficult to watch—are the duties and pastimes of boys living on farms. That Lucien deals such death isn't what disturbs; it's the joy that lights in his usually emotionless eyes while killing that leaves us cold. He carries out these duties with a verve absent in any other aspect of his life (the interlude with the horse is the only one of these scenes in which we see an ounce of compassion from Lucien). This cruelty and killing leaves us with a fundamental question that Malle, quite purposely, doesn't answer by film's end: Is there something congenitally wrong with Lucien, some flaw in his soul, that makes him ripe for the picking of the Gestapo?
The other possibility is more terrifying. Perhaps Lucien is a boy like any other. Perhaps we each have a secret fascination with death and, therefore, the capacity to slide bit by bit into evil. Lucien's innocence is a vital component of the picture. Not yet an adult, he is apolitical. As in La Sequenza del Fiore di Carta and L'amore, the short films by Pier Paolo Pasolini and Jean Luc Godard that comprise half of the French-Italian anthology picture, Love and Anger, Malle draws a striking correlation between innocence and corruption in a world charged by political extremes: Neutrality is impossible when Nazis are on the march. Rejected by the Resistance for his lack of seriousness (read: innocence), Lucien's succumbing to the lure of the Gestapo seems inevitable because his simple life on the family farm is no longer possible—war abhors an ideological vacuum.
He's too young and too foolish to see the decadent life of the Nazi police and French collaborators as anything but romantic. But we know better. The picture is set in June of 1944. In one scene, the collaborators gather around a radio at the hotel where they congregate and commiserate. They listen to Vichy news reports of American cowardice on the shores of Normandy. We know the reports are lies. We also know that the consequences of the choices Lucien and his compatriots now make loom in the very near future, and that they will be severe. In the meantime, we watch Lucien grow increasingly drunk on the power the Gestapo gives him, watch in horror as he becomes more and more cruel. Eventually, abusing human beings is no different to him than shooting hares or breaking the necks of chickens.
The character with whom we most identify is Albert Horn. He's haunted by both the folly and terror of the boy's choices. And he's devastated by Lucien's sexual pursuit of his daughter, who herself is too naïve not to fall in love with the farm boy. We share Horn's pity and dread of Lucien. Like him, we can't like Lacombe, but we also can't quite bring ourselves to hate him. That retribution is doled out to Lucien off-screen, after the credits have rolled, is both a relief and a disappointment. On the one hand, we pity the boy too much to relish his punishment; on the other, his arrest is an integral part of his development as a character, the tragic moment at which he moves finally from adolescence to adulthood. Not witnessing it leaves us empty.
Criterion brings Lacombe, Lucien to DVD in a gorgeous transfer sourced from a 35mm interpositive. Once scanned, the movie was put through a meticulous digital restoration, leaving an image that is impressive even by Criterion's lofty standards. This is simply one of the best-looking films in the Criterion catalogue. The presentation is 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen, in keeping with the picture's original theatrical aspect ratio. Colors are perfectly rendered. The image is stable and detailed. There's nothing to complain about.
The film's analogue mono soundtrack has also been digitally restored. It's presented in a single-channel Dolby Digital mix that places all dialogue and ambient sound in a surround system's center speaker. The track is clean and beautiful, though it does display some minor distortion about sibilant dialogue now and again.
Criterion delivers Lucien, Lacombe both as this single-disc release, and as the second disc in their 3 Films by Louis Malle boxed set. This stand-alone disc is part of their budget line, and contains a limited number of supplements. The disc itself offers only a theatrical trailer in addition to the feature. An insert booklet has Pauline Kael's excellent review of the movie from New Yorker, as well as detailed information about the restoration and transfer of the film to DVD.
Lacombe, Lucien is a flawed film but still incredibly powerful. Criterion's beautiful presentation of the film makes it well worth 138 minutes of any cinephile's time.
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• Original Theatrical Trailer
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