Lacombe Lucien Review

A cursory glance at the history of French cinema will show the enormous impact the occupation had on the country's film industry - from the ambiguous Le Corbeau to the accusing A Self-Made Hero and Tavernier's ambiguous Laissez-Passer, dozens of films have looked at what is know in France as Les Années Sombres. Just this year we are to see a re-release of Melville's brilliant L'armée Des Ombres (The Army in The Shadows). The occupation, the collaboration and the résistance not only raise important issues in modern French cinema, they are also crucial political and social issues in a country that has had a schizophrenic memory of what exactly went on during those years. In the post-war, De Gaulle made much of the French resistance and the entire field of politics became a resistant-only zone. Behind this public glory created by heroes like Marc Boegner, André Malraux and the people of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, there remained the salient issue of their counterparts - from the dreaded milice to the zealous bureaucrats in Vichy, a large section of France had collaborated but this aspect was quite naturally seldom touted.

As a result of this, talking about the issue became extremely complicated: as the French say, spitting in the soup (Cracher dans la soupe) is not generally appreciated and ten years after the Liberation, Alain Resnais accidentally found himself in a legal battle with the censorship board in 1955 for his inclusion of a photo in Night and Fog showing a French policeman watching over the transit camp in Pithiviers. Faced with his film being cut in half by the board, Resnais accepted to mask the unmistakable képi with a wooden beam (he has since reinstated the original shot). Then in 1969, The Sorrow and the Pity broke through some of the remaining taboos surrounding collaboration but Lacombe, Lucien still managed to raise many heckles fives years later.

Following the life of Lucien, the viewer is never certain where they stand with him. He's a young school-leaver who hates his day to day job sweeping the floors in the clinic while a whole world around him seems to be having fun fighting a war. Filled with hours of Vichy propaganda blaring on the wireless, he aspires for something more in his life but with his father in a POW camp, he has little guidance on any front. When he finds his mother taking up with another man, he chooses to go looking for adventure and goes to his former school teacher who is rumoured to head up the local resistance group. He offers him a hare as a way into the group but the teacher is unsure about Lucien. He doesn't seem to have strong views one way or the other and seems a little too green and unreliable to join the underground. Spurned by this rejection, Lucien leaves in a huff but gets arrested by the local collaborationist militia who see in him a perfect recruit - after all their numbers are dwindling now that the Allies have taken a foothold in Normandy...

It is a tribute to Malle that he keeps us interested in Lucien despite constant attempts at destabilising our ability to empathise with him. Lucien's disconnection from the world around is perfectly played by Pierre Blaise, with a wonderfully fresh but crumpled face. Blaise died tragically shortly after the film was released and a result enhances the doomed feeling that surrounds Lucien. His gauche, uncomfortable manner coupled with his rusticated language give the protagonist a fragile and tragic figure who is left to make his own moral decisions in a time and place devoid of a clear moral compass. Even when he makes a decision, he seems unable to understand the responsibility that comes with it, his actions mirroring the hero of Camus' Outsider. Opposite him, Aurore Clément and Holger Lowenadler gel well with Blaise as an uneasy friendship forms between the three of them. Similarly to Au Revoir Les Enfants, Malle focuses on the coming-of-age in a disturbed world but refuses to really bear a judgement on any of the characters. In Malle's hands, the camera becomes a non-moral observer following the character down the path he chooses to take - although as a viewer we see this path as a morally unacceptable one, the film reminds us that sometimes those choices are not that obvious to everyone.

Malle's collaboration with the now famous Patrick Modiano on the script also brings some new elements to the mix. The rogues gallery that make up the Collaborationist militia reflect Modiano's clear surrealist touch as well as his obsession with Occupied France - most of the novels he has penned as a novelist have been set in that era. Mixing noir with grand guignol, Malle at times seems to fumble around with the narrative arc but it also helps to strengthen the feeling of disorientation felt by Lucien. Although the narrative arc is somewhat vague, Malle's direction is however pitch perfect although the casting of Blaise and Clément as the two leads seems to have given him a strong hand from the outset (despite neither of them having acted before).

More that thirty years since its release, Lacombe Lucien remains an emblematic film of post-war French cinema. Although visually the film doesn't really break new boundaries, the characters set this film apart as a distinctive and honest film from one of France's most gifted directors...

The DVD:

Lacombe Lucien is available as a single-edition release or part of a three film boxset of Malle's French work.

The image:
Although retaining the film's natural grain, the print itself is of very good quality and shows few signs of weakness. Artifacting is minimal and the colours seem a lot better compared to my trusty VHS copy. There is one slight strange occurrence that I noticed - the opening credits sequences has been noticeably shrunk compared to the rest of the film which sticks out somewhat (between 2:24 and 5:40). It is quite surprising that Criterion have left such an obvious mistake through.

The sound:
The original mono is the sole mix available in the original language, bien sûr! There is an issue with some of the "s" sounds coming through as slightly hissy and distorted (see 55:40 to 55:45 for one example of it)- this problem is often found on older French films and I'm unsure if anything can be done digitally to remove them. Globally, it's a good enough soundtrack that remains true to the original.

The subtitles:
Very good - them stick closely to the French and do a good effort at translating some of the more subtle nuances in the film (such as the untranslatable distinction between tu and vous in French).

Again, they are a bit thin on the ground but the boxset contains an extra DVD with more extras. For the single-edition of Lacombe Lucien we get the very rough looking trailer which is itself a work of art with some unused sequences and clever camera effects along to Django Rheinhardt's Minor Swing. The accompanying booklet containing Pauline Kael's original review which as ever is admirably well written and unsurprisingly enthusiastic of the film though also quite clear about its shortcomings (though I don't actually agree with her on most of her issues, she makes a strong case for them).

Maybe it's a little hard in the UK to fully appreciate the full extent of the impact of the Occupation on the French psyché - the convenient presence of water more than anything else allowed us to escape the choices that large parts of Europe were faced with. If anything, like Stanly Milgram's infamous experiments on obedience, Lacombe Lucien questions the very nature of what really governs our choices...

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out of 10

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