Lacombe, Lucien

A part of this view­ing list: Criterion Collection Spine #329: Louis Malle’s Lacombe, Lucien.

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Lacombe, Lucien is a film in­ten­tion­al­ly filled with sym­bols, al­most al­le­gor­i­cal in ef­fect, per­tain­ing to is­sues about the loy­al­ty and re­spon­si­bil­i­ty of French civil­ians dur­ing the German oc­cu­pa­tion in World War II. Lucien is nec­es­sar­i­ly the most nu­anced char­ac­ter, since the film cen­ters on his ex­pe­ri­ences, yet Pierre Blaise’s stone-faced por­tray­al and as­sym­met­ric di­a­logue ini­tial­ly cre­ate a very un­sym­pa­thet­ic view his per­son­al­i­ty.

He’s still ado­lesc­ing, but his peas­ant up­bring­ing en­sures that he is a bit bet­ter equipped to fend for him­self than might be ex­pect­ed. Death sur­rounds him, he acts as its in­stru­ment through most of the film, killing birds and rab­bits, haul­ing a dead horse, de­liv­er­ing up his towns­folk to be tor­tured, go­ing on raids and con­stant­ly ex­am­in­ing or clean­ing his guns. Yet dur­ing all of this, Malle leaves hints both sub­tle and not so sub­tle that Lucien will ul­ti­mate­ly be death’s vic­tim.

Lucien ini­tial­ly at­tempts to join the Underground, but is re­ject­ed be­cause he is too young and un­tried. He even­tu­al­ly gets picked up by some French who are work­ing as German po­lice, is ques­tioned and then brought in­to the or­ga­ni­za­tion. Malle seems to de­lib­er­ate­ly make it ap­pear that Lucien is hook­ing up with gang­sters, the same sym­bols at­tach­ing to his sta­tus with­in the group as we might see in The Public Enemy or Goodfellas, a first suit, a first gun, etc. He even los­es his vir­gin­i­ty to the ug­ly maid Marie.

It is the gain­ing of his suit that caus­es Lucien to ques­tion his loy­alties. The tai­lor, Albert Horn, is a rich Jew who has man­aged to keep away from the Germans for most of the war, main­ly by brib­ing a French Gestapo agent to keep him safe. We hear a pi­ano play­ing in the back­ground, but we don’t see the pi­anist [al­though we know she pret­ty much has to be a beau­ti­ful young Jewess] un­til Lucien re­turns for a fit­ting. Even then there is very lit­tle re­ac­tion to their first sights of each oth­er, but we sense a perk­ing of ears and oth­er things. Lucien us­es his Gestapo clout to bul­ly his way in­to their lives in pur­suit of the Jew’s daugh­ter who hap­pens to be named…France.

This seems laugh­able be­cause it is so bla­tant, but it al­lows Malle to ulilize dou­ble en­ten­dre to mag­nif­i­cent af­fect. In Lucien’s dis­cus­sions with Albert, it is hard to de­ter­mine whether they are talk­ing about France the coun­try, France the wom­an or both. As cul­tured Parisians, the Horns are po­lite but wary of Lucien’s pres­ence, and the nev­er-end­ing pa­tience of Monsieur Horn adds a healthy dose of fear to the equa­tion, since on­ly a man who knows that Lucien holds the pow­er to hand them over could take so much churl­ish­ness.

Despite all of this, Lucien means well, he just knows no bet­ter. I start­ed out the movie with a healthy dose of dis­like for him, but by the end he is quite sym­pa­thet­ic. He thinks he does an ex­cel­lent job hid­ing his emo­tions, and us­ing mis­di­rec­tion in speech to fur­ther ob­scure his feel­ings, but every­one can read him like a book. Even in the mo­ments when he is off in the coun­try won­der­ing to him­self, and hid­ing from the pur­suit of France we can tell that he is yearn­ing for something…perhaps a France that will provide him with ful­fill­ment.

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• Couldn’t re­al­ly find much for this film.

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