15 August 2006 | Chris Knipp
Lucien, the provincial teenager who tries to join the resistance and when rejected becomes a Gestapo killer, may be more innocent and ignorant as well as more brutish than the average Frenchman of the occupation; but many French people must have fallen into collaboration like this. The period was rife with troubling complicity. Released at last in a fine US DVD version by Criterion Collection available with Murmur of the Heart (1971) and Goodbye, Children (1987), this rich, powerful work is not one for US film buffs to miss. This trio from Malle reveals him to be the New Wave's premier chronicler of the moral complexities and tragedies of the coming-of-age process.
For the lead role Malle found the remarkable Pierre Blaise, tragically killed in a car accident a year after release. A youth without previous acting experienced but with the provincial accent Malle couldn't find among professionals, Blaise combines the cherubic and the dangerous, the brutish and the sweetly innocent. Sullen yet ineluctably present, Blaise has great presence and essentially makes the film. In a French TV interview with Malle at the time still available online Malle says Blaise was compared with Delon. Blaise turned out to be "very, very gifted," Malle adds.
The atmosphere of this interview, incidentally, suggests that in some circles not everyone in France was as violently upset by or opposed to the film as we are now told. After all, Le Monde did hail Lacombe as a masterpiece initially, even if they recanted and called it "dangerous" later. "Dangerous" is a strange criticism for a film, a sort of backhanded flattery.
When considering the moral ambiguity of the piece, it's worth considering Allociné's commentary, which points out the following: "Malle adopted a Marxist approach in looking at the collaboration. He stated that his Lucien was inspired by Marx's concept of the lumpenproletariat as a social class with no choice other than to collaborate with the forces of repression because its members have no political culture available to them. Thus in the filmmaker's mind Lucien Labombe's enlistment in the militia was a choice determined not by ideology but by a need to gain material comfort and better his social position." This is in fact a classic "collabo" situation: while some supporters of the German occupation did so because of fascist, anti-Semitic beliefs, many more did it for expediency. It was the armée des ombres (to use Jean-Pierre Melville's title), the résistence "shadow army," whose members acted out of idealism. The determinism and sheer stupidity of Lucien's enlistment is underlined by the fact that it's late in the war: the Americans are coming, the Germans are losing, and the French resistance is inflicting daily casualties on the closest collaborators, as we see when Lucien's French Gestapo bosses get wounded and killed.
Lucien's lumpenproletariat helplessness couldn't be made clearer. Lucien begins with a job emptying bedpans. His father is prisoner of the Germans. His mother is living with another man and tells him not to come around any more. His prospects are grim. He has no status -- not even the comfort of parents. Though he's an ignorant boy, he has the solid (lumpen) physique of a man, and he also has a certain brutality: we see him kill first a small bird with a sling shot, then rabbits and chickens, and each time this is a gesture in response to being put down or rejected. Yet he has confidence. He asks his schoolteacher to take him into the maquis, but the man rejects him out of hand as too young, useless ("we have many like you"). By chance -- a tire blowout on his rickety bike -- he falls into a den of Gestapo collaborators. He's not daunted; he recognizes a bike champion among them and drinks with the men and with his tongue thus loosened, in an act of childish revenge whose dire consequences he probably doesn't know (and which are initially hidden from him), he informs on the teacher. He's soon taken to meet Albert Horn, an elegant Jewish tailor from Paris in hiding with his mother and daughter (Aurore Clément, intense in her first screen role). Horn makes a suit for Lucien, later another: they become his new uniform, an escape from his peasant identity and stepping stone to the power, status, and money that are why he's playing this deadly game.
On the way to the tailor in a collaborator's posh, sporty convertible, Malle brilliantly has Lucien try on a pair of big sunglasses -- which instantly transform him. By dint of this little gesture, the country bumpkin -- with his clear skin, rich wavy dark hair, and strong bone structure -- instantly becomes a blasé movie star. Coming of age in this film means sexiness, transformation, danger. Malle's teenagers all live in adult worlds of moral transgression but retain the prettiness and innocence of youth. What comes next clinches the moral ambiguity of Lucien's role: he falls in love with the very Parisian but still Jewish daughter of Monsieur Horn.
Lucien wields his new power crudely -- he has no finesse, only self-confidence and a well-tailored suit -- but he is drawn to Horn as a substitute father and to the daughter because she -- who herself rejects her Jewishness -- represents urban sophistication as well as femininity. Why does the tellingly named France (Horn takes no political or moral stand himself, but does love the country) sleep with Lucien? There are half a dozen very good reasons. The trajectory of Lacombe Lucien troubles us and makes us weep.