Jan 30, 2015

Lacombe, Lucien

With my recent viewing and somewhat surprised enjoyment of his soothingly somber suicide masterpiece Le feu follet (1963) aka The Fire Within, I decided checkout some more works directed by famed frog filmmaker Louis Malle (Les Amants aka The Lovers, My Dinner with Andre), whose works I find to be either hit or miss, not to mention oftentimes obscenely overrated, thus leading me to the admittedly quite masterful French-West German-Italian co-production Lacombe, Lucien (1974). Notable for being one of the first French films to deal with the subject of collaboration with the Gestapo during the Second World War in a fairly serious and reasonably objective non-partisan fashion, Malle’s nearly 140-minute wartime epic depicts the fast rise and equally swift fall of a seemingly half-retarded 17-year-old peasant boy as played by a real-life peasant boy who joins the Milice française—a blackshirted paramilitary force created on January 30, 1943 by the Vichy regime that fought and hunted down members of the resistance—after he is rejected by the resistance, only to fall hopelessly in love with a conspicuously cultivated blonde-haired and blue-eyed Parisian Jewess that is hiding out in a decrepit apartment with her wealthy yet wimpy tailor father and sassy non-French-speaking grandma. Co-penned by half-Hebraic Nobel Prize winning novelist Patrick Modiano—a man whose Sephardic Jewish father curiously regularly hung around with the Gestapo during the Vichy era after most Parisian Jews had already been sent to concentration camps—and directed by an avowed left-wing filmmaker and philo-Semite who went out of his way to mock the dissident far-right paramilitary organization OAS in his masterpiece The Fire Within, Lacombe, Lucien is, relatively speaking, a fairly objective work for its kind as a film that never would or could be made today in ultra-philo-Semitic frogland and that, somewhat shockingly, hardly ever succumbs to vomit-worthy sermonizing, hence why the film was considered controversial and even offensive by some, including Judaic agitpropagandist Marcel Ophüls (who apparently bitched about the film to Malle's brother), upon its release. Originally entitled Le faucon aka The Falcon and set in present-day Mexico, Malle’s work might not be the classic it is today were it not for the fact that the filmmaker was unable to film in Mexico, as the director and his kosher co-writer were forced to rethink and rework the entire film as a result, ultimately making it infinitely more provocative by setting it in one of France’s most infamously disgraceful periods in history as a once great empire that found themselves to be the groveling cuckolds of their perennial enemy, the Teutons. Featuring an ambiguous antihero who despite his rather low IQ and brazenly boorish behavior is fairly unpredictable and morally anomalous, Lacombe, Lucien stars a “real-life Provençal farm boy” named Pierre-Marc Blaise who originally worked as a woodcutter and was chosen over 1,000 other prospective actors despite the fact that he had never acted in his entire life. As the son of a rich industrialist, Malle certainly demonstrates in the film his seeming love-hate intrigue for anti-intellectual peasants who are one with the earth and nature and always rely on their instincts over their intellect, as the eponymous lead (the title is in reference to the bureaucratic ‘fascist’ way the protagonist introduces himself) is a sort of half-man/half-beast who is in his element in the wild but becomes a coldblooded killer and borderline psychopath when given power over other people by the Gestapo. 

 It is June 1944 Vichy France and Lucien Lacombe (Pierre Blaise) is a black-haired 17-year-old boy from the small southwestern French village of Souleillac who lives a remarkably mundane life involving mopping floors at a Catholic retirement home in between senselessly killing cute songbirds with his slingshot, shooting wild game, and plucking chicken, which he kills with a karate chop to the neck.  While Lucien’s father is in a POW camp, his mother takes it upon herself to start an affair with her boss and rents their family home out to a rather dirty sub-peasant family with a dozen or so small half-clothed children, so the protagonist decides he wants to join the resistance and brings the local leader, a seemingly pompous school teacher named Robert Peyssac (Jean Bousquet) that is known as ‘Lieutenant Voltaire’ by his comrades, a dead rabbit as a gift in the hopes of letting him join, but he is told that he is “too young” and that “the underground is not like poaching.” While riding his bike back to the old folk’s home late one night, Lucien spots a fancy hotel called ‘Hotel Des Grottes’ where a wild party is raging on and before he knows it, the protagonist is busted for snooping around the place and taken inside. Hotel Des Grottes is local headquarters for the so-called ‘German police’ aka Milice française and Lucien is accused of spying and roaming around outside after Nazi-ordained curfew, but when he recognizes and compliments the bartender Henri Aubert (Pierre Decazes)—a somewhat effete ex-professional cyclist with a beer belly who he saw win a race in 1939 in Caussade—the French collaborators decide he is harmless and begin plying him with alcohol to see if he knows anything about the local resistance. Before he knows it, Lucien is thoroughly intoxicated and ratting out Monsieur Peyssac aka ‘Lieutenant Voltaire’—the mensch who rejected the protagonist's plea to join the resistance—to the frog Gestapo.  Lucien is so ignorant about politics, that he tells the German police that Peyssac is purportedly a Freemason and then asks them, “What’s a Freemason?,” which causes them all to chuckle.  After Lucien runs his mouth, Peyssac is arrested and tortured, but that protagonist does not seem too concerned, as the German police give him a job and he ultimately becomes their youngest, and certainly one of their most ruthless, members.

 Before he knows it, Lucien becomes a stoic soldier and coldblooded killer who is willing to do any and everything he is told, as he finds most of the work to be fun, even hunting rabbits while engaging in gun battles with members of the resistance, and seems to have no idea of the moral or political magnitude of his actions.  Indeed, the protagonist loves his job as it gives him power over members of the upper-classes and the job pays fairly well, not to mention the fact that it features a fairly generous benefit package that includes, among other things, “war loot” (valuables taken from enemies) and a unending flow of expensive hard liquor and aged wine.  Indeed, Lucien has no idea how good and cultivated the wine he is drinking, but his comrades let him know.  Lucien is taken under the wing of a charming yet seemingly psychopathic opportunistic aristocrat named Jean-Bernard de Voisins (Stéphane Bouy) who owns a gentle giant of a cow-colored Great Dane and who dates a slutty redhead hack actress named Betty Beaulieu (Loumi Iacobesco).  Among other things, Betty gets a narcissistic sense of joy out of giving Lucien an autographed photo of herself and loves running her mouth about the most pointless and shallow things, even openly remarking in front of her blueblood beau and his comrades how she thinks British Jewish actor Leslie Howard, himself an anti-Nazi propagandist who died under dubious circumstances in 1943, is more attractive than Frenchmen. Jean-Bernard is all in it from the money and power as demonstrated by the fact that he sells forged papers to a disgraced wealthy Jewish tailor of the Yiddish-speaking sort named Albert Horn (Austrian-Swedish Bergman actor Holger Löwenadler)—a disillusioned fellow that has broken by the war and spends most of his time lying around in a fancy robe—who lives with his elderly non-French-speaking mother (German Jewish actress Therese Giehse, who Malle dedicated his 1975 work Black Moon to) and a beauteous Paris-born blonde daughter symbolically named ‘France’ (Aurore Clément of Wim Wenders Paris, Texas (1984)). While Lucien initially begins a romantic relationship with a peasant girl with a lazy eye named Marie that works as a maid at German police headquarters, he more or less falls in love with France at first sight. Needless to say, cultivated Jew Albert Horn is not happy when a borderline retarded low-class fascist goy cop begins regularly hounding his dainty daughter, who is a piano prodigy of sorts who blew her chance at going to a conservatory because she had fallen in love with a boy. Indeed, commie killer by day, Lucien soon finds himself in an inexplicable situation at night while attempting to vie for the attention and affection of a Jewess by bringing her and her family various gifts, including flowers, expensive wine, jewelry (or what the protagonist calls “war loot”), cash and other scarce items that they could not get otherwise. Due to his lack of manners, poor and oftentimes strange manner of speech (France is perplexed by the fact that Lucien constantly calls her “my dear” despite the fact he does not even know her), and overall lack of sophistication, France oftentimes finds herself laughing at Lucien, but he will ultimately have the last laugh after managing to get in her kosher panties. 

 Aside from a staunch and insanely idealistic Hitlerite named Faure (René Bouloc)—a bitter and less than educated fellow who believes Jews breed like rate (any self-respecting anti-Semite knows that the Jewish population rarely grows)—virtually none of the members of the German police really believe in the National Socialist cause, with a smooth-talking negro bartender named Hippolyte (Pierre Saintons) even being among their ranks. While the boss of the group, Inspector Tonin (Jean Rougerie), became a member of the German police after being fired from the regular French police in 1936 for being an “undesirable,” Jean-Bernard joined up because he is an unscrupulous opportunist who is willing to do whatever it takes to maintain his distinguished life of aristocratic luxury. Protagonist Lucien more or less unwittingly joined up, but it does not take him long to realize he enjoyed the power and privilege it afforded him as a lowly peasant who got to humiliate and persecute the bourgeois class that he felt humiliated and persecuted him (rather revealingly, Lucien oftentimes says to his enemies, “I don’t like people talking down to me”). Using his easy-to-abuse power as a kraut-backed cop, Lucien somewhat absurdly threatens to take Monsieur Horn to the Gestapo if he refuses to allow him to take his daughter France to a dance party at fascist headquarters, stating, “If France does not come, I’ll take you to my friends…and some of my friends are not too fond of Jews.” To protect her father, France goes against his wishes and goes with Lucien to the decadent Gestapo dance, but problems arise when the protagonist's date dances with other men because he does not know how to dance. After his comrade Jean-Bernard reveals that he is leaving for Spain and remarks in reference to France, “Some Jewish girls are so very beautiful...They make other women look like old hags. I had a Jewish fiancée once. Incredibly stacked and very rich,” Lucien gets extremely enraged and manhandles his friend Aubert for dancing with his date. After Lucien forces her out of the dance hall in a rough fashion and breaks the heel of one of her shoes in the process, France plays peacemaker and says to him, “It’s a shame you can’t dance…I’ll teach you” and begins slow-dancing with him, but their would-be-romantic moment does not last long because the protagonist's exceedingly jealous hotheaded maid girlfriend Marie sees them, yells, “Filthy Jew! They all have syphilis,” and threatens to tell the Germans about the Jewess. While Marie is being restrained, France runs upstairs and hides in a bathroom where she sobs hysterically in the dark. Of course, Lucien eventually finds her there and comforts her by rubbing her hair. After crying “I’m tired of being a Jew,” the two begin kissing and ultimately make love. Indeed, a cultivated Jewess finds herself engaged in coitus with a borderline retarded farm-boy, but such are the strange and seemingly unlikely acts of desperation that wars spawn. 

 Needless to say when dapperly dressed Hebrew Monsieur Horn discovers that his pretty progeny has slept with a dimwitted peasant collaborator who has been routinely taunting his family with his aggressive and boorish behavior, he blows a gasket and calls France a “whore,” so Lucien threatens to give him a “thrashing.” Of course, the entire situation pushes Horn over the edge and he finally gets the gall to stroll around in public in a fancy suit like he did before the war instead of sitting inside all day in a robe like he usually does, stating that, “I feel like my old self.” Horn wants Lucien to help him and his daughter France escape to Spain, but when he asks him about talking to him “man to man” about the issue, the protagonist blows him off. In a rather drastic attempt to get Lucien’s attention, Monsieur Horn absurdly goes to Gestapo headquarters and is caught by rabid anti-Semite Faure, who predictably sends him on a train to Toulouse. When Lucien informs France of what happened to her father and says “it was his own fault,” she freaks out and starts hitting him, so he calms her down by raping her. Things are not going too well with the ‘German police’ either as virtually every single one of them, including the black bartender, are killed one night while Lucien was guarding a prisoner upstairs. With all his comrades dead, Lucien decides to betray his masters by killing an SS SD man when he comes to round up France and her granny. After that, Lucien drives France and granny south, though their car breaks down on the way, so they are forced to take refuge in abandoned old shack. While living in the countryside, Lucien reverts back to his old and more simple farm-boy ways, which comes in handy, as he is able to provide France and her grandmother was tons of freshly killed meat. Aside from being rather repulsed by armies of ants climbing up her leg, cosmopolitan Parisian Jewess France seems to adapt well to the country and even seems to fall in love with Lucien to some degree (though there is one ambiguous scene where she holds a rock over his head as if she wants to kill Lucien). Indeed, everything seems idyllic until an inter-tile juxtaposed with a shot of Lucien lying in a relaxed fashion in a meadow reveals that the protagonist was arrested on October, 12 1944, given a show trial by the Resistance, and swiftly executed via firing squad. 

 Tragically, Lacombe, Lucien lead Pierre Blaise died less than two years after the release of the film while driving a car, a Renault 17 Gordini, he had bought with the money he earned for the handful of films he had starred in, thereupon somewhat ironically facing a deplorable fate that was not all that unlike the eponymous character he played in Malle’s film in that he perished before ever getting to develop into a full man and experiencing everything that life has to offer. In the book Malle on Malle (1993) edited by Philip French, Malle stated regarding Blaise: “…he was very much of a rebel, and somewhat of a social outcast, although he came from a great family. I still see his parents. He died in a car accident two years after the film. I loved him dearly. He had no conventional culture whatever: he had never seen a film in his life, had never been to a cinema. Not only had he never seen a camera, but he’s never been to a movie! And never read a book.” Indeed, a sub-literate farm-boy who had never seen a single film in his entire life managed to give one of the most idiosyncratically memorable acting performances of post-WWII French cinema. When it came to karate-chopping the heads of chickens or chugging liquor, Malle relied on Blaise’s experience as a rural lumpenprole to give a certain authenticity to his film, or as the director stated: “One of the difficulties from me with LACOMBE, LUCIEN was that I knew very little about the character since he was someone whose social background was the opposite of mine […] Pierre Blaise was helpful. And I always followed his instinct. I would watch him very carefully and I could see when he was uncomfortable with a line or situation.” One of the major themes of the film is Hannah Arendt’s idea of the ‘Banality of Evil’ yet Blaise brought intrigue and mystique to this so-called ‘evil’ which Malle summed up as follows: “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.” 

 Arguably the director’s most Bressonian effort as a work where the lead was “subconsciously” (as Malle once described it) inspired by the teenage collaborator François Jost played by Charles Le Clainche in Un condamné à mort s'est échappé ou Le vent souffle où il veut (1956) aka A Man Escaped, as well as a strangely tender celluloid affair that features a serene pastoral naturalism that recalls Au hasard Balthazar (1966), Lacombe, Lucien is surely Malle at his best, even if it is not as immaculate as The Fire Within, but of course one expects a certain amount of imperfection for such an ambitious film. While featuring a certain amount of realism and naturalism in terms of it's use of non-actors and depiction of real animal killings, the film also has a certain oneiric quality that makes it feel like it is set in a sort of alternate reality even though it was inspired by much historical research. The only other French Vichy era film I can think that has a similar quality is Michel Mardore’s The Savior (1971) aka Le sauveur starring as Horst Buchholz as a German officer who pretends to be an English paratrooper and uses his psychopathic charms to seduce a cutesy yet busty 14-year-old blonde played by Muriel Catalá so that he can eradicate every single person in her village. Of course, Lacombe, Lucien is a much more intricate and morally ambiguous work, hence the public outcry various intellectuals and film critics, or as Malle stated regarding the response to the film: “People who had lived through that period knew that this film was completely true and honest about what actually happened. And people who were not French took it for what it was: a reflection on the nature of evil. The controversy was between French intellectuals and politicians. Those who attacked the film did it on the grounds that it was fiction; we had invented and put on the screen a character who was complex and ambiguous to the point where his behavior was acceptable. For them, it justified collaboration – which certainly is not what I was trying to do.” Not surprisingly, French Jewish documentarian Marcel Ophüls was apparently “shocked” by the film’s ambiguity, but of course unlike The Sorrow and the Pity (1969) aka Le Chagrin et la pitié—a work that even Jewish French minister Simone Veil, herself a Auschwitz survivor, felt was too biased and played a major role in having the doc banned from French television until 1981—and Hôtel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie (1988), Malle’s work depicts the intricacies regarding French collaborators and does not proselytize about the evils of collaborators and Nazi and the supreme righteousness about the resistance. To Ophüls’ minor credit, I found the eponymous hero of Malle’s work to be more likeable than any of the resistance fighters in the film. Of course, as people seem to hate to admit, both the resistance and the collaborators were comprised of gangs of ruthless killers and had the Second World War ended differently, the former group would now be regarded as bloodthirsty butchers and the latter would be regarded as European heroes instead of the other way around.  Indeed, I'm sure the French resistance had its fair share of Luciens, as well as Dirlewangers, but no contemporary French filmmaker has the testicular fortitude to depict such a figure, so Lacombe, Lucien acts as the next best thing.

-Ty E

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