Every so often a director makes an inspiring casting choice to not hire a real actor for a role, but go with an unknown, an amateur. Perhaps the best example of this was in Vittorio De Sica's 1952 film Umberto D., wherein he cast Carlo Battisti, a retired college professor from the University of Florence, as the lead character. Yet, not that far behind has to be Louis Malle's decision to cast the lead character for his 1974 film, Lacombe, Lucien with an amateur named Pierre Blaise. No actor would likely be able to capture the natural ferality that Blaise brings to the role of a none-too-bright French farm boy who unwittingly, at first, becomes an accomplice and collaborator with the Gestapo in the final months of Vichy France, in late 1944.
He is not evil, even though the film abounds with moments of animal cruelty that seem to delight both the actor and character to such a degree that separating the two of them is nearly an impossible task. Then there is the utter grunting stolidity that Blaise brings to the role. Any real actor would likely have gone over the top, trying to 'make a scene' where the film dictates the character need only be in the margins of the scene. And, the truth is that there is little to be had from each scene. The screenplay is assured but minimal, but that feels right, as we sort of wander through scene after scene of evil and violence with the same lack of bearing that Blaise/Lacombe does.
In an early scene of the film he ambles in to his old schoolmaster's classroom with a dead rabbit he shot, and asks to join the Underground. He is rebuffed by the arrogant teacher (Jean Bousquet), and rightly so, for he sees Lacombe is a tyro with no real desire to fight the Nazis, merely to fight boredom. Then, when Lacombe is caught by the Vichyites, he becomes, at first, an accidental collaborator, who rather unconcernedly turns in the schoolmaster, oblivious to the man's coming demise, and the fact that this will make him a pariah in his small town. There, we have seen how he is already detached from his father and mother, and has no real concern about his job as a hospital orderly. This realism is especially effective, for while it peppers the film with seeming mundanities, these down moments play as perfect backdrops to the brief thrusts of a knife into the viewers' guts, that the more horrific moments represent.
Even the main thread of the film, Lacombe's relationship with a young Jewish girl, France Horn (Aurore Clément)—an unfortunate rare example of the film being heavyhanded in its symbolism—her rich tailor father, Albert (Holger Löwenadler), and her grandmother, Bella (Therese Giehse), is nothing special. Yes, the girl uses her sexual wiles to seduce Lacombe into protecting them for as long as he can, but it is so manifest a ruse by her that the viewer has to be amazed that Lacombe does not get it. Of course, it's not amazing since Blaise seems to not be acting, and may never have even been told the real outline of the story. Or, if he was, he apparently had no conscious recognition of some of these factors. Regardless, his stolidity and Malle's deft handling of his lead, results in one of the strangest, yet believable portrayals of incidental evil ever filmed. Not even Werner Herzog's Bruno S. was as capable of giving a performance as convincingly and authentically oblivious as Blaise does.
One wonders if the young man would have continued in acting, had he not died in a car crash a year later. And, would he have retained that animal poise and inchoate sexuality, of the sort that an over-the-top poseur like James Dean could only dream of possessing? The film runs two hours and seventeen minutes, but it feels much shorter. This is always a giveaway of an involving and excellent screenplay, and the one Malle and Patrick Modiano penned is a fine example of a stellar screenplay that is not dependent upon its dialogue.
Since Lacombe is neither an anti-Semite nor politically inclined, he has no trouble bedding France, while simultaneously threatening to turn her and her clan in if they do not cooperate with him. Without knowing it, Lacombe has recapitulated the very situation his nation was in at the time, and Malle's use of this interior symbolism is deft, and never overstated. Then there is the stellar ending of the film, after Lacombe shows he may be learning things, and that he has done wrong. After Albert foolishly turns himself in to the authorities, and Lacombe possibly forces himself on France, he ends up turning his lover and her grandmother in to the Gestapo, then—after being rebuked by the German for stealing a pocketwatch—shoots the German, steals a car, and helps the two women escape to the countryside. After a few minutes of idylls, we get text over the images of Lacombe and France cavorting in a stream, as a flute serenely plays on. It tells us that Lacombe was tried and executed for treasonous collaboration. Yet, these facts play over a beautiful spring or summer day. It's a devastatingly effective ending, and shows Malle a true master of his craft, by tugging the viewer in two opposing directions and instilling the notion that all endings are merely links to further endings. Yes, the film ends in bliss, but that's only at the surface, just as Lacombe's evil may have only been surface—although an early scene where he expertly kills a bird with a rock and slingshot suggests that there is also a desire for mayhem and cruelty that resides within him, and had he gotten into the Underground he would likely have expressed his cruelty against those he ends up with in this film's version of reality.
The only bit of a stretch the film makes is when it depicts a zoot-suited black French collaborator. Would the Nazis really have allowed blacks into their German police, even under the more lax French auspices? I doubt it. But the film was pilloried upon its release, by the Leftist French film critics, not because of such historical implausibilities,but because the film did not outright condemn Lacombe and his actions. In short, they condemned it for being a complex work of art, and not a simpleminded bumper sticker. That we get no interior life of Lacombe, thus no possible motivations, was seen as heresy. Yet, we do get clues, if from less obvious sources—when we see Blaise's blank face, or learn of his father's being held as a POW by the Germans, or the hints of sadism that Lacombe exhibits whilst inflicting cruelty to animals, even as he shows empathy toward a dead horse. Malle's sin, to them, was not overtly telling the critics nor audience what he so skillfully implies. Oddly enough, another of Malle's masterpieces, the later My Dinner With Andre, was excoriated by some critics for the exact opposite reason, for not showing and only telling!
The film is far more dependent upon its screenplay than typical Hollywood films, then or now, and while the cinematography by Tonino Delli Colli is competent, as is the soundtrack by Django Reinhardt, Andre Claveau, and Irene de Trebert, the film's claims to greatness are solely dependent upon its narrative construction, and brilliant little moments, such as when Lacombe says, 'I don't like people talking down to me,' in two different situations that lend insight into the film's center.
The DVD, from The Criterion Collection, is part of the collection 3 Films By Louis Malle, along with Murmur Of The Heart (Le Souffle Au Coeur) and Au Revoir Les Enfants. The film is in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio, and is very clean, and almost entirely free of blemishes. There is no audio commentary, only a theatrical trailer. There is an insert essay by film critic Pauline Kael, a reprint of her 1974 New Yorker review. There is a fourth bonus disk with supplements, such as interviews with Malle's wife, actress Candice Bergen, and Malle's biographer, the film critic Pierre Billard. There are also excerpts from a French tv program on the two other films, and filmmaker Guy Magen's video character study of the traitorous Joseph from Au Revoir Les Enfants—a character with much in common with Lacombe. There are also three audio interviews with Malle from 1974, 1988, and 1990. The final extra is Charlie Chaplin's 1917 comedy classic, The Immigrant, which is seen within Au Revoir Les Enfants. Unfortunately, having seen many versions of that silent comedy classic, the musical arrangement for this version is atrocious and too overstated.
In some ways, Lacombe has much in common with Stanley Kubrick's thuggish Little Alex, from A Clockwork Orange, save that he is more restrained and realistic. He also never really changes in the film—he starts and ends the tale as an impassive and predatory Sphinx who could have easily become a Resistance hero as a Vichy thug, if only his bicycle's back tire had not blown out near the local Vichy leaders' home. Perhaps this is why Albert tells him that, despite his abuse of his family, 'Somehow I can't bring myself to completely despise you.' Neither can the viewer of this film, which is why the complex and probing Malle is a much better filmmaker than the obvious and often preachy works of his New Wave rivals, Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut. But, I need not even state such a case, when his films do all the talking necessary. Sssh.....hear that?