Part of Malle's unofficial autobiographical WWII trilogy. This one tells the supposedly true story of Lucien, a country boy in Vichy France who finds himself more than willing to work with the enemy. Lucien is a rotten character, and it takes nearly the entire movie before we can even remotely identify with him. He's not the likeable sort of anti-hero we could secretly cheer, no he's a degenerate, and a horrible person.
From the first scene in the movie we see him take out a slingshot and randomly kill a bird. Not a great first impression. This brings up my first question to Malle, why all the cruelty towards animals. Sure Lucien is the worst of the bunch, but every animal dies in here, it's pointless and wrong. In fact much of the film is pointless, but the fact that Lucien is a cruel soulless bastard could have easily been established with that first gratutuitous animal slaying, no need to add chickens, rabbits, and other animals to the list. This is a rare film where animal deaths far outweigh human deaths. Although Malle seems to have a hard on for showing animals get killed on camera, he keeps nearly all of the human deaths off camera, only once do we see someone get shot, the rest of the film's characters get killed off camera. I find this necessary to point out, because few if any reviews will mention the fact that animal cruelty runs rampant here, and this type of thing should be warned about.
The film itself is about a sense of conformity. Lucien can't join the resistance because of his age, but winds up working easily for the German Police, even though his father is a prisoner in a German camp. He seems to have one motto "I don't like being talked down to". That and self preservation. Like any young adult, he's sick of being treated like a kid, so he'll join up with whoever will respect him as an adult. The nazis give him some power, which Lucien has no problem abusing at any time. However we can't help but hope that he'll wake up. This kid needs to snap out of it and take a stand, do something. We get a chance to see him make some sort of retalliation, but it doesn't really help, the damage has been done. Perhaps he has saved one or two people, but it doesn't quite make up for the countless he's either killed, or helped to get killed throughout the picture.
The film was received horribly in France, where most people had illusions of the French being brave during the occupation. Malle was there, and he's telling his own story, one that says that they weren't all agreeable. This may have been easier to swallow after Ophul's Sorrow and the Pity, which makes a very strong case of the French collaborating during WWII. One of the things Malle does that is effective, is that although he shows people working alongside their enemy, he lets them get some dirty words in when the doors are closed. Sure there are plenty of French helping out the German Police, but all of them resent it. They know and hope that the Americans will soon liberate them, even if their own future is in jeapordy for collaboration.
The main plot point is Lucien's love of France (Aurore Clement) yes that's a characters name. I find the name mroe than ironic as was most likely the point. Lucien doesn't love his country, but he loves France through this girl, and eventually does right by her. His love seems completely passionless, and he bullies his way into their home. It isn't until far into the end that you get a sense for the first time that they may actually feel anything for each other. Pierre Blaise plays Lucien so dryly that we don't get the feeling he has any emotion for anything. He's a cruel SOB, and he seems incapable of any positive emotion. He can be jealous, he can be greedy, he can be manipulative, but he can't seem to care. The whole love story seemed forced, and seemed to be used to motivate the plot, I found Blaise unconvincing, and the whole thing was durragatory.
Due to the reception it got, Malle had to make his exit for America shortly after, we he embarked on a string of interesting pictures, that I for one think are his best. Malle made Black Rain shortly after, a very experimental and poorly received film, before making his exit, where he stayed away for a full decade. He never really stopped being controversial though, and Pretty Baby wound up getting him in the hottest water of his career, but a fascinating film nonetheless. Lacombe Lucien isn't a particularly bad film, but I can't jump up and down and say it's a masterpiece either. It was shown as part of Facet's Louis Malle Retrospective. It's the only film I've managed to catch so far, unfortunately I missed The Silent World last week, which believe me I wanted to see arguably more than any film, certainly more than any Malle film. I will of course keep you all posted if I can catch any more.