With his discomfiting Lacombe Lucien, Louis Malle dramatically explored the idea that human primal instinct and moral ignorance are the only conditions necessary for evil to do its work. In the southwest France of June 1944, conditions are especially "favorable" for Lucien Lacombe, at eighteen years old an incipient man. A hospital custodian who lives on a farm with his mother, Lacombe feels restless. In the film's opening moments, he reveals his casual callousness by using his slingshot to kill a bird while a Vichy broadcast plays on a radio behind him. The soundtrack to a murder is telling: the young man could easily become an agent of the occupation.
The bored Lacombe hopes to make something of himself—perhaps as a way of following his P.O.W. father's footsteps. Lacombe's first instinct takes him to his supercilious former schoolmaster (Jean Bousquet), the local leader of the Resistance. Meeting with suspicion and rejection from the teacher despite bringing the gift of a dead rabbit, Lacombe knows when he's not wanted. The Nazis, on the other hand, don't mind Lacombe's intellectual dullness—he'll make a fine brute. Within hours of his successful recruitment into the Gestapo, Lacombe finds himself face to face with his teacher again, under less pleasant circumstances.
If Lacombe's circumstantial path to collaboration is an unfortunate twist of fate, the young man's disinterest in ideology and hunger for power make it possible. Though non-professional actor Pierre Blaise maintains a sullen blankness through most of Lucien's initiation—including a fitting for his Gestapo-wear with tailor Albert Horn (Holger Löwenadler)—a furtive animalism emerges in the presence of the tailor's daughter France (Aurore Clément, also a first-time actor). France, Albert, and Albert's mother (Therese Giehse) are Parisian immigrants with good reason to worry their days away. The hapless Jewish family has no more defense against the personal intrusions of Lacombe than they do from his Gestapo brethren (or their landlord, who insists, "France isn't one big waiting room").
Using his newfound power as a bullying means to his romantic end, Lacombe moves into the Horn's home and France's bed (the backwards boy's militaristic self-introduction gives the film its title). The impassive youth may not take as much pleasure as A Clockwork Orange's Alex, but he's equally dangerous. Malle and co-screenwriter Patrick Modiano are keenly attuned to the ironies of Vichy France ("Save the politics for later," admonishes one Gestapo officer during a raid on a doctor's home), while adding their own. The collaborationist anti-hero finds Malle instantly broaching a cultural taboo, compounded when the traitorous young man forces himself into a sexual relationship with a not-entirely unyielding girl named France.
Cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli (Once Upon a Time in America)—a frequent colleague of Fellini, Leone, and Polanski—gels with Malle's unobtrusive storytelling style while still delivering handsome imagery. Meanwhile, Malle gets unsettling performances from his inexperienced leads, and crack work from veterans Löwenadler and Giehse (the original Mother Courage).
Malle saves his greatest provocation for film's end, when title cards reveal the fates of his characters. Though he has more than enough reason to do so, Albert tells Lucien, "Somehow I can't bring myself to completely despise you," and Malle challenges the audience to examine its own feelings about a response to evil. Does meting out eye-for-an-eye punishment leave the world blind? Typically, Malle avoids the easy answer, though he does unequivocally remind us of Santayana's famous sentiment "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
Criterion's DVD edition of Lacombe Lucien is available as a single-disc (with a $29.95 MSRP), or as part of the 3 Films By Louis Malle box set. With a high-def transfer, the film looks excellent. The mono soundtrack is notably hissy in its quiet moments, but still robust in dialogue and music, and newly translated subtitles well represent the screenplay by Malle and Patrick Modiano. The single disc includes an original theatrical trailer, and a twenty-four-page booklet features Pauline Kael's original 1974 New Yorker review.
For greater contextualization of the film, film buffs are well-advised to spring for the box set, with two more Malle classics (Lacombe Lucien and Au revoir les enfants) and a bonus disc of extensive extras. "Pierre Billard on Louis Malle" (30:40) sits Malle acquaintance and biographer Billard to discuss the intersection of the filmmaker's life and work (particularly Malle's rebellion, spirit of discovery, artistic ambiguity, and controversial role in French cinema). "Candice Bergen" (13:31) finds the late director's wife reflect on her husband's art, work ethic, and personality (Bergen focuses on the Au revoir les enfants period, recalling a set visit she made and the awards-circuit roller coaster).
Criterion also includes two excerpts from French series Pour le cinéma: "On Murmur of the Heart" (7:48) and "On Lacombe Lucien" (11:58). Both full-screen black-and-white segments include contemporaneous comments by Malle and clips from the films. From the archives of the American Film Institute and London's National Film Theatre come three invaluable recordings: AFI's 1988 Harold Lloyd Master Seminar with Malle (53:06) and NFT Q&As from 1974 (40:47) and 1990 (52:55). The wide-ranging discussions touch on all three of the films included, and quite a bit more (such as Malle's good-natured hesitation—and tentative plan—to work professionally with Bergen).
The bonus disc also showcases the complete 1917 Charlie Chaplin short "The Immigrant" (25:11)—seen, in part, in Au revoir les enfants (the version here is a Kino print with a lackluster Michael Mortilla score). Rounding out the bonus disc is a 2005 short film, "The Character of Joseph as seen by Guy Magen" (5:20). A critical film essay in film form, Magen's piece sagely explicates the key supporting character from Au revoir les enfants. 3 Films By Louis Malle gathers three thematically related masterworks by a filmmaker whose statue is likely to continue to rise with time—given the deluxe Criterion treatment, film fans will find the package irresistible.
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