“Lacombe, Lucien” is a Louis Malle (“Au Revoir Les Enfants”) film set in Vichy France in WWII. It was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards. The film was co-written by Malle and the acclaimed novelist Patrick Modiano. The movie is noteworthy for the casting of two rookie actors. Aurore Clement was making her first movie. Malle wanted an amateur in the main role. Pierre Blaise was a highly unconventional choice. He came too late for the open call audition and Malle got a certain vibe from him. Blaise told him he did not want to be in the film and was only there because his mother forced him to go. Blaise wanted to quit after a few days of being ordered around. Malle solved this problem by telling everyone to treat Blaise like a star actor.
The movie is set in a town in Southwestern France in June, 1944. A radio broadcast from the Vichy government refers to Gaullists as communist dupes. A teenage boy named Lucien mops floors in a hospital, but takes the time to shoot a bird with his slingshot. Even before the credits roll we know the main character is warped. Later, he knocks a chickens head off with his hand and I’m not talking about a CGI chicken. This is a boy looking for a tipping point. It comes when his teacher who is in the Resistance declines his request to join the Maquis. In that case, how about the other side? The den of collaborators operate from a hotel. He rats out the teacher to join their gang. He fits in well because the hotel is home to many despicable characters.
Through one of his new friends, he meets a Jewish tailor named Albert Horn (Holger Lowenadler) who is being extorted by his friend. Lucien is smitten by Albert’s daughter France (Aurore Clement) and although her father and grandmother always have that “what’s that smell?” look when he is around, she is apparently intrigued by his expressionless maliciousness. He moves in with them. Albert’s solution to this awkward situation is to go to the hotel to discuss things. So much for maintaining a low profile. Meanwhile there is some ambush and counter-ambush action involving Frenchmen who think Hitler is the new Napoleon versus Frenchmen who want anything but fascism.
Malle tries to tell a controversial story based on the dynamics in Vichy France. Some French citizens fought against the Nazi regime and some collaborated with the fascists. The group Lucien joins represents the Milice Francaise. The Milice were a paramilitary unit created by the Vichy government to fight the French Resistance. It used executions and assassinations. It also had a penchant for torturing to obtain information and confessions. It helped round up French Jews for deportation. There was a lot of tit for tat with the Resistance as the Resistance targeted Malice members for death. Malle was taken to task by some French critics for exposing the seamy side of French national success in WWII. Surprise, some Frenchmen bet on the wrong side! Lucien’s friends are like 1920s gangsters. There is even a Bonnie and Clyde couple.
The main problem is the main character is not likeable. I think we are supposed to be sympathetic towards a seventeen year old who falls in with the wrong crowd, but it is obvious from the beginning that this kid is a creep. This dilutes the central themes that power corrupts and war destroys childhood innocence. There seems little reason to believe that if there had not been a war, Lucien would not have been a petty criminal. As played by the amateur Blaise, he does the opposite of scene chewing. He does throw in some teenage giggling to remind us he is not a cyborg. That said, the cinematographer does have a penchant for close-ups of expressionless faces. Otherwise the camerawork is interesting. If you know Blaise is a rookie, it does make the movie more palatable. (The reluctant actor went on to make three more movies in the next year before dying when he crashed his new car.) The rest of the acting is average, with the exception of Lowenadler. He is riveting as the Jew constantly wondering how it is that he has to kowtow to his intellectual and moral inferiors. He is the only interesting character.
The movie has some long stretches where nothing really happens. When you get to some action, it is usually truncated. And yet, there is not a lot of dialogue in a movie that has little action. Worse, some of the plot makes no sense. Why would France be attracted to such a loathsome character? She certainly can perceive that he is a threat to her father’s safety. And she stays with him after her father is taken! That must have been some great sex. Speaking of which, why would Albert go into the lion’s mouth?
I have seen some awesome foreign films as part of this blog and I have seen some critically acclaimed foreign films that left me shaking my head. “Lacombe, Lucien” fits into the second category. It is a very French film and I do not mean that in a good way. ( If you want to see some good foreign war movies I would suggest Russian and South Korean.) If you like strange and plodding, this movie is for you.
GRADE = C+