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Sunday, 25 November 2007

Lacombe Lucien (1974) Louis Malle

I've worked my way through most of the Louis Malle films that were shown on TCM as part of the commemorations of what would be his 75th birthday celebrations, and I'd seen a couple beforehand too. I'm now ten films into his filmography with what seem to be generally acclaimed as his two greatest achievements left on my DVR: Lacombe Lucien and Au revoir, les enfants.

We're in a town called Souleillac in southwest France in June 1944. The Second World War is still being fought and France is under the Vichy government. Our lead character is Lucien Lacombe (the title reverses his name for deliberate formality) and we're shown his moral ambiguity from moment one. Even before the credits roll, he's cleaning the floors at some sort of hospital run by nuns, but pauses to kill a bird that's singing outside with his slingshot. In fact there's a lot of what could nowadays be referred to as animal cruelty, but which could also be described as everyday country life in the forties: Lucien shoots rabbits, kills chickens and helps load a dead horse onto a truck. Yet however real the reasons, there's suggestion of deliberate cruelty. Lucien kills out of rejection as well as to eat.

We soon discover that his father is a prisoner of the Germans and his mother is having an affair with a man whose son has joined the resistance, so he's not exactly accepted anywhere. He tries to sign up with the resistance himself, but they won't have him as apparently he wouldn't be a good fit and there are too many like him already. Circumstances quickly bring him to the attention of the occupation police and when they get him drunk he ends up turning in the local resistance leader. From there it's a quick slide into full collaboration and all the psychological changes that come along with that, along with the added complexity that Lucien is also coming of age.

The film unfolds subtly and ambiguously as it should, aided by the 138 minute running time. Pierre Blaise brings a powerful presence to the film as the lead character, even though (and perhaps because) he was a non-professional actor who had never appeared on film before. He made three more movies before being killed in a road accident a year later. He reminds me very much of the character of Daniel, the collaborator with the aliens in V, both as an actor and a character, but with a few extra levels of complexity.

The other two actors who stand out are the Jewish tailor and his daughter, to whom Lucien is introduced and who become more and more important as the film progresses. Holger Löwenadler is subtly powerful as Albert Horn, the tailor, and is highly reminiscent of Max von Sydow. Aurore Clément plays his daughter France, whose name can hardly be accidental, and she's superb. Rather than just follow her father's quiet acceptance and hope, she rides both sides of the morality fence: certainly one of the good guys but more open to talking with the bad guys and attending their dances and so on. This was her first film also, but she would go on to a long and distinguished career in film.

Albert Horn has a wonderful line two thirds of the way through the film. Talking to Lucien, he says 'It's very strange. Somehow I can't bring myself to completely despise you.' That's how the film treats Lucien too. It's hard to really determine whether Louis Malle and co-writer Patrick Modiano depict him as a good guy who's strayed to the dark side and is succumbing to its power, a bad guy either with potential or gradually slipping further away from the light, or some combination of both. The film's power comes from the growing realisation, begun very early on in the film, that it's the latter. We despise Lucien for many of his choices, but we sympathise with him for many of his reasons. Juggling the two emotions must have been something that the French had to do a lot of in the decades after World War II.

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