Lacombe, Lucien

Oct 19, 2005 at 12:00 am

In this 1974 Louis Malle film set during the waning days of WWII, a young man living in German-occupied France spends his days working as a menial in a nursing home and on his family’s farm. His father has been arrested and the man who’s staying with his mother treats him badly. More to escape his dreary life than out of patriotism, he tries to join the Resistance, but the leader — a schoolteacher who doubts the boy’s motives — doesn’t think he’s qualified.

One evening, while returning to the nursing home to retrieve something, the boy happens upon a brightly lit hotel that, unknown to him, is the local Gestapo headquarters.

This is how the rather dense and inarticulate Lucien Lacombe (Pierre Blaise) drifts into a sinister occupation and finds himself at home. There are no untapped reserves of evil in the mopey farm boy; rather, working with the Nazis offers him, for the first time in his life, a feeling of empowerment. He relishes his newfound control and ability to evoke fear. He hurts people not because of some ideological commitment, but because it’s a part of a new exciting game he can play. Therefore when Lucien falls in love with a Jewish girl, he neither knows nor cares about the implications until he’s in over his head.

The girl responds to his advances, but her father — a sophisticated man who’s been reduced to hiding out in a run-down apartment — glowers at the boy, while her grandmother ignores him as she sits at a small table playing endless games of solitaire.

Malle’s approach to Lucien’s story is a stylistic corollary to his anti-hero’s stunted personality — muted and matter-of-fact. Lucien seems to lack the ability to empathize with others, but his desires and needs, his hurts and resentments, are recognizably normal.

Everybody has their reasons, good or bad, and this subtle film is a case study (hence the officious-sounding title) of childishness and opportunity leading to cruelty. By the end of the film, we’re left with mixed emotions; Lucien’s fate may be legally just, but it also seems, in some universal sense, grossly unfair.


In French with English subtitles. 7 p.m., Sunday, Oct. 23, at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-3237).

Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].