The next feature film Louis Malle made after Le Souffle au Coeur is about as different a film from that social comedy as can be imagined. Lacombe Lucien is an uncompromising drama set in occupied France in 1944 about a peasant boy, Lucien Lacombe, who joins a group of collaborators.
The film opens with the teenage Lucien (Pierre Blaise) working as a hospital orderly. He washes the floors and empties the patients’ chamber pots. A bird tweets innocuously outside the window. Lucien takes a slingshot from his overall, takes aim, and kills the bird. Written down, the symbolism of this act seems heavy-handed, but it’s an effectively concise encapsulation of the paradoxes of this character. His job is to care for people, yet he takes pleasure in destruction. He is neither still a boy nor yet a man. Who carries a slingshot around?
Having finished work, Lucien cycles home to the farm where his mother lives. His father is a prisoner of war, and his mother is having an affair with the landlord, M. Laborit. Lucien brings money to his mother, and performs tasks around the farm. He helps a group of men to attach a dead horse to a cart, and strokes the horse’s head tenderly. He takes potshots at rabbits with a rifle while a younger boy attends him. He catches a chicken and, holding it upside down, chops its head off with his hand. This is all presented in the most unsentimental, matter-of-fact way. We see Lucien as an uncomplicated person, a blank canvas. What occupies his mind? What motivates him?
Laborit’s son has joined the Maquis, and perhaps this plants an idea in Lucien’s head to do the same. Lucien goes to see a schoolteacher, Peyssac, the leader of the local Resistance, and asks to join, but he is rejected as too young. Travelling back to the hospital, his bike gets a puncture. Diverted from his normal route, he happens upon a dilapidated hotel now used as a base by a group of collaborators. Taken in and plied with drink, he is quizzed about the Resistance presence in his home town of Souleillac. Naively, he tells them of Peyssac, who is apprehended the next morning. Lucien falls under the spell of the collaborators. Glamorous and attractive, and including an actress and a cycling champion, they are unlike anyone else he has ever met.
One of the collaborators, Jean-Bernard (Stéphane Bouy), takes Lucien to a middle-aged Jewish tailor, Albert Horn (Holger Löwenadler), to have a suit made for him. Formerly a friend of Jean-Bernard’s father, Horn now pays Jean-Bernard protection money for not handing him over to the Gestapo. He lives in semi-reclusion with his elderly, nearly silent mother, Bella (Therese Giehse), and a daughter of about Lucien’s age, France (Aurore Clément). Lucien falls in love with France, and, despite her reservations about the people he works for, she finds herself doing the same.
This is a dangerous game for Lucien to play. When he brings France to the hotel for a party, she is viciously abused by the jealous hotel maid, Marie. Meanwhile, the longer he spends at her family apartment, the more intolerable life becomes for her father. Horn calmly hands himself in. When German troops come to take France and Bella away, Lucien intervenes to help them escape to the country. A caption relates that Lucien was later tried and executed.
The phrase that recurs in descriptions of the film is ‘the banality of evil’, a phrase first used by Hannah Arendt in reference to Adolf Eichmann, whose trial for war crimes she attended in 1961. So much of the evil that happens over the course of the film is the result of apathy. Lucien’s heart, one senses, isn’t in helping the Gestapo. He has no interest in their principles. He simply wants something to do, and the Resistance won’t take him. Early on in his apprenticeship, the maid Marie takes Lucien to one side and advises him to abandon the Gestapo, as the Americans will win the war. It’s a test of how far he has been indoctrinated. Will he reject the collaborators as a result of her advice, or will he expose her to them as a traitor? In the event, he does nothing: it’s the easiest course.
That said, Lucien’s involvement with the collaborators gives him licence to exercise the cruel streak shown in the first scene of the film. Most of what goes on at the hotel is bureaucracy — receiving and replying to letters — and the most malevolent character in the film, the humourlessly dogmatic Faure (René Bouloc), is essentially a penpusher — the genuine face, you feel instinctively, of the Gestapo. That makes the rare occasions where the sadism of Nazism is shown explicitly all the more shocking, in scenes of water torture upstairs in the hotel, and in one chilling scene at a doctor’s country house.
Jean-Bernard, aided by Lucien, limps up to the house, feigning a leg injury and asks for Dr Vaugeois, a man he knows to be working for the maquis. The doctor cautiously takes him in. When the doctor removes the bandage from Jean-Bernard’s leg and finds no wound, he knows the game is up. Lucien and others go through the doctor’s trinkets, taking the best pieces; the doctor’s brother phones up, and is told by a collaborator, Hippolyte, that the doctor is going to be shot; Lucien and Jean-Bernard ask the doctor’s teenage son Patrick about an impressive model ship he has made during the past year. Jean-Bernard snaps the mast in two, and Lucien breaks off the upper deck. Throughout this scene, the potential for violence that seethes below the surface is as horrifying, if not more so, than the small outbreaks. As Lucien calmly breaks up the boat, he stares into Patrick’s eyes, his own swimming with malevolence, and also with wonder at the power he is just beginning to discover in himself.
The small act can be as devastating as the large. In a later scene, Lucien visits the Horns’ appartment and finds France playing the first movement of the Moonlight Sonata. Horn says he feels that his whole life has been lived to the beat of this music. After France’s departure from the room, Lucien threatens Horn with exposure unless he gives permission for France to attend a party at the hotel, and sits on the piano keyboard. The tiny gesture of sitting on the piano, the huge implication of cultural rape and desecration.
Related to the banality of evil is the element of chance in the film’s plot. A character in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys talks of subjunctive history — ‘moments when history rattles over the points.’ An example given there is that Halifax might have taken over as Prime Minister after Neville Chamberlain’s resignation in 1940, but at a key moment went to the dentist. If he’d had better teeth, he might have been made PM, and the Germans might have won the war. Pascal expressed a similar thought: ‘Le nez de Cléopâtre: s’il eût été plus court, toute la face de la terre aurait changé.’
Lacombe Lucien is a huge ‘what if’. Lucien, broadly speaking, is not someone who does things, rather someone things happen to. If he had been taken in by the Resistance, or if his bike hadn’t suffered a puncture, he would not have encountered the collaborators. Late in the film, with the hotel sacked and the collaborators decimated, Lucien comes across a prisoner upstairs in the hotel. The prisoner appeals to Lucien’s youth, and promises that he will help Lucien to escape if he releases him. It’s another turning point: if Lucien lets the man go free, he has a chance of making it out alive himself. Instead, Lucien gags the man and draws on a lipstick mouth. It’s his own pathetic show of resistance.
It doesn’t seem to be until Horn sacrifices himself, maintaining his dignity to the bitter end, that Lucien begins to appreciate the value of life. He redeems his past actions with one heroic act, but too late to save himself. The final scenes of the film, which pulsate quietly with energy, show Lucien, France and Bella establishing a way of living in a deserted farmhouse. Lucien sets traps for food, kills animals, cleans his gun, counts his money, makes love with France; Bella wanders in the fields, watches a cricket on a leaf, plays patience. Lucien’s return to the simplicity of rural life is a return to blamelessness.
I didn’t write about the performances in Le Souffle au Coeur, but one has to write about the performance here of Pierre Blaise, perhaps the most notable of the many non-professional actors Malle worked with. (The performances of Holger Löwenadler and Therese Giehse are also remarkable, to a degree that I am not capable of expressing.) That one feels no sense of justice at the fate of Lucien, just one of pointlessness and pity, is down to the power of this one performance. Malle, quoted in Philip French’s exemplary Malle on Malle:
I could see from the first rushes that on the screen there was something so powerful, so ambiguous about him. In a way, you could look at him as the ultimate villain, but at the same time he was incredibly moving, as he was discovering power and money and how you can humiliate people who have been humiliating you for years. Pierre Blaise was so good, he got me into trouble. A lot of people saw the film almost as an apology for a collaborator because Blaise was so moving and disturbing that you could not completely hate him.
The character of Lucien seems to have been an extension of Blaise’s own. It is clear that his own influence on the film was profound, and welcomed by Malle.
He was very wild, he was seventeen, had left school at fourteen and had gone to work with his elder brother, who was cutting trees in the woods … Something that fascinated me from the beginning — he had a natural culture. He was a passionate hunter; he would talk about birds, about birds in certain seasons, how to find them, how to hide yourself to shoot them. He had this intimate relationship with nature — not only being a peasant, but also he’d spent the last two years of his life in the woods.
I did something that I had already done with Le Souffle au Coeur. We were going through the script and he was reading the scenes, and [Patrick] Modiano and I would listen to him. We adjusted the script because when he had a problem with a line he was usually right and we were wrong. I could see right away that he knew much more about the character than I did; he was not only playing the part, he was also my technical consultant on everything that had to do with the character’s background, his emotions, his behaviour. He agreed to do the film somewhat reluctantly, I think he was interested in the money and I liked the fact that he was not really interested in becoming an actor.
As with Lucien in the film, we can play the ‘what if’ game with Pierre Blaise. He died the year after the film’s release, barely twenty years old, crashing a car he had bought with the money from his acting work. If he’d never met Louis Malle… But there is no what if in life. It’s history — just one fucking thing after another.
I don’t have any grand thesis about this film. Just watch it, is what I say. Alan Bennett again, writing about perhaps the film’s greatest asset, its avoidance of didacticism, in the London Review of Books:
To know that one is being taught a lesson or at any rate given a message leaves one free to reject it if only by dismissing plot or characters as clichés. But I had not realised how far the moral assumptions of film story-telling had sunk in, and how long they had stayed with me, until in 1974 I saw Louis Malle’s film about the French Occupation, Lacombe Lucien … The stock way to tell such a story would be to see the boy’s experiences — witnessing torture and ill-treatment, falling for the Jewish girl — as a moral education in the same way, for example, that the Marlon Brando character is educated in On the Waterfront. That would be the convention, and one I’d so much taken for granted that I kept looking in the Malle film for signs of this instruction in the school of life beginning to happen. But it doesn’t. Largely untouched by the dramas he has passed through, Lucien is much the same at the end of the film as he is at the beginning, seemingly having learned nothing. To have quite unobtrusively resisted the tug of conventional tale-telling and the lure of resolution seemed to me honest in a way few films even attempt.