As I watched the marvellous Louis Malle film, Lacombe Lucien, I remembered Simenon’s account of living under the German occupation of Belgium in WWI. Simenon fictionalised this period in perhaps his most autobiographical novel, Three Crimes. In the novel, Simenon argues, and argues well, that a period of occupation is an inevitably corrupting experience. Simenon offers many examples of this through the opportunistic individuals who float with the scum who happen to be in power. This thought came back to me repeatedly as I watched Lacombe Lucien. Malle’s film takes an unsparing look at the breakdown of French society through the life of Lucien, a twisted, emotionally stunted youth who lacks both political ideology (which would at least explain his attitude and actions) and compassion towards the people who fall into his path.
It’s German occupied France–south-west France to be more precise in 1944. Definite Vichy territory here, and the film opens with young Lucien (Pierre Blaise) mopping the floors in a hospital and emptying the slop from bed pans. While the nurses listen to the radio for news about the war, Lucien sneaks a moment to take a hidden slingshot from his pocket. In just a few seconds, he kills a songbird as it sings in a tree outside of the hospital window. Lucien smirks to himself at his petty victory, and in this one act, Malle sews up Lucien’s character in a nutshell.
Lucien hates his job at the hospital. On his time off, he returns home to the village farmhouse where his mother (Gilberte Rivet) now shares the bed of her employer, Laborit (Jacques Rispal). Lucien’s father is absent–forced labour for the nazi war machine in Germany, and while Lucien is at loose ends at his old home, it’s also clear that he’s not welcome. The village is a hot bed of resistance, and the farm owner’s son–a known patriot–is off fighting with the Resistance. Lucien, attracted to the excitement and glamour of the Resistance, and tired of the boring drudgery of the hospital, wants to join, but his efforts are rightly suspect, and the local Resistance leader, schoolteacher Peyssac (Jean Bousquet) rebuffs Lucien’s interest.
Since Lucien’s attraction to the Resistance is not ideologically based, it comes as no surprise to see him next hanging about a huge hotel–the headquarters of the French collaborationists. Soon Lucien is part of the collaboration team, and it’s a role that suits him well. As his vicious, bullying nature begins to thrive, Lucien becomes the pet of the collaborationists, toting weapons, threatening the locals, and throwing around his ill-gotten gains (he calls it “war loot“). For the collaborationists, life at the luxury hotel is one big long party with champagne, sports cars, and rich food. Those who live at the hotel are shown to be a motley crew of misfits: an ex-bicyling champion, a minor film star, and a former policeman who was dismissed in ’36 as an “undesirable.” These are the sort of rejects who are running the show, rounding up pockets of resistance and then handing them over to the Germans, and apparently there’s no shortage of those eager to offer information. A large amount of time is spent opening letters–about 200 a day–which detail suspicions against friends and neighbours.
Nasty Jean-Pierre de Voisins (Stéphane Bouy), a French aristocrat whose behaviour hints that he’s the black sheep of his family, takes Lucien under his wing, teaching him the tricks of how to trap members of the Resistance and once caught how to torture them. But it’s not all work, and Jean-Pierre takes Lucien to the home of Parisian, jewish tailor Albert Horn (Holger Lowenadler) who lives in complete seclusion with his daughter, France (Aurore Clément) and his taciturn mother, Bella (Therese Gieshe). The Horns live in tenuous circumstances buoyed with tarnished glamour. While they are somewhat protected by Jean-Pierre, they must pay rent and protection money and Albert also serves as Jean-Pierre’s exclusive tailor.
Lucien becomes obsessed with Horn’s daughter, France. This obsession ignites a change of events and a series of moral quandaries for the Horns as Lucien offers protection at a price, and it’s a protection that will expire when the Germans lose the war. Time, then becomes a crucial factor. The Horns must survive but at what price?
Time is also a factor for the collaborationists, and there’s the sense that for those who used the occupation to feather their own nests, there’s not much time left. At first the vast hotel is their party hangout/torture and interrogation headquarters, but that soon changes as 1944 wears on, and the hotel becomes a sanctuary for those sympathetic to the nazis.
Malle’s wonderful film shows the collaborationists as a nest of opportunistic, lowlife bullies who, inflated by nazi power and weapons, lord it over the locals. They are in contrast to people like the Horns who seem to be an almost entirely different species. In spite of their daily humiliations, the Horns appear to rise above their circumstances, and this is in direct contrast to Lucien and his fellow collaborationists who’ve sunk to almost unspeakable behaviour. At one point, Horn acknowledges that he cannot hate Lucien–in spite of everything he’s done.
Many reviews state that Lucien, by his youth and inexperience alone, is not an entirely unsympathetic character. He is devoid of any moral feeling, and torturing a fellow Frenchman seems to generate the same sort of feelings he experiences when he slaughters a chicken or shoots rabbits. The first scene paints Lucien as very unpleasant, and for this viewer, Lucien remained unpleasant and with more than one screw loose. While it can be argued in many films that bad characters act the way they do due to circumstances, any sort of moral compass is entirely absent in Lucien, and this is not simply due to his youth.
Tragically, Pierre Blaise was killed in a car accident the year after Lacombe Lucien was released.