Lacombe Lucien: Summary, main themes and reception

SUMMARY OF THE MOVIE

The movie Lacombe Lucien takes place in 1944. The main character – Lucien Lacombe – is a seventeen years old peasant who lives in the south of France. At the beginning of the film, Lucien tries to join the Resistance but the local Resistance leader, who is Lucien’s former school teacher – refuses to let him do so because of his young age.

Following a series of coincidences, Lucien finds himself in the local headquarters of the French Gestapo. Without even realizing it, Lucien denounces his former teacher and realizing he could be helpful, men from the French Gestapo decide to recruit him. It is worth mentioning however that this recruitment process is done in a really insidious way. Indeed, the more Lucien spends time at the French Gestapo headquarters, the deeper he becomes involved in the movement.

Lucien enjoys being a member of the French Gestapo considering it is a huge step up from his position at the bottom of the social ladder (being the son of farmers).

However, things get complicated when Lucien meets France Horn. Indeed, France is Jewish. She lives with her father – Albert Horn – and her grandmother – Bella Horn. The family escaped Paris which is occupied by the Nazis to hide in the south of France which is supposed to be a zone free of any occupation. Albert Horn tries to use his connections to get a member of the French Gestapo to help his family flee France to go to Spain.

In the meantime, Lucien falls in love with France and becomes more and more involved in the daily life of the family. Albert Horn does not seem to approve of the feelings Lucien has for his daughter but he is tied up by his fear of deportation. Eventually, he realizes that his contact had not had any intention of helping his family flee to Spain and, desperately, he gives himself up to the French Gestapo.

A group of people from the Resistance attack the Gestapo headquarters and kill a lot of people. As a revenge, the Gestapo sends German soldiers to arrest many Jewish, among which France and her grandmother. Lucien participates in the arrest but, last minute, he takes the decision to kill the German soldier and escape with France and her grandmother.

They take refuge in an abandoned cottage in the countryside. The film ends with scenes from the cottage of Lucien, France and Bella with very few dialogues and images of the characters living a wild life in a sort of rural and contemplating atmosphere.

At the end of the movie, a final message on a black screen indicates that Lucien was captured and executed by the Resistance a few weeks after when the country was liberated by the allies.

MAIN THEMES

  • Violence

At the beginning of the film, violence is present in almost every scene. Lucien kills a lot of animals out of pure cruelty and seems to enjoy it. The movie also highlights how violence is trivial and part of day-to-day life at this time in the French countryside. One scene, in particular, is really striking. Lucien runs after a chicken and kills it. The scene lasts for several minutes. Around Lucien, children are playing and some women are plucking chickens, nobody seems to notice what Lucien is doing, proof that violence is a usual part of the day-to-day life.

As the movie goes on, violence increases considerably while becoming less visible on screen. Lucien does not kill animals anymore, he kills humans. However, it is never shown, Lucien simply brags about it to the Jewish family. Several scenes of rape are suggested but again never shown.

There might be two reasons for that. First, violence increases so much that it becomes unbearable to watch for the audience. Second, it might be a choice of the film director to increase the impact violence has on the audience throughout the movie. Indeed, when violence is suggested throughout the movie, we can only imagine what is happening, thus our imagination turns violence into something maybe more serious and powerful than it would have been if the scenes were shown.

  • Community through exclusion

Another important theme in the movie is the construction of a sense of community through exclusion. The characters define themselves in opposition to others. For instance, Lucien is an intruder when he first meets the French Gestapo. Then, when facing the Jewish family, he describes himself as someone from the ‘German police force’. Finally, at the end of the movie, when the German soldier arrests France Horn and Bella Horn, Lucien becomes part of France and Bella’s community by killing the soldier.

In the same way, France’s sense of belonging changes throughout the movie. When she first meets Lucien, she is a French citizen, as opposed to Lucien being part of the German police. Then, Lucien takes her to a party at the French Gestapo headquarters and there she is called ‘Jewish’ by a French woman. Finally, during the last scenes of the movie, when they are in the abandoned cottage, she is clearly defined as a young girl as opposed to her grandmother.

  • Grey zone

Finally, the last theme I wanted to highlight is the importance of the grey zone. In Lacombe Lucien, very few characters are clearly part of the Resistance or part of the French Gestapo.

Lucien is supposed to be part of the French Gestapo but he falls in love with a Jewish girl. France is Jewish but she goes to a party at the French Gestapo headquarters and has a relationship with Lucien who is part of the German police. Albert Horn is Jewish and desperately wants to escape the country to protect his family but, as a tailor, he agrees to make suits for people from the French Gestapo and does not prevent Lucien from raping his daughter and invading their privacy by imposing himself in their home. Finally, the grandmother who seems to be clearly against the Gestapo and German occupation, still tacitly agrees to be saved by Lucien when the German soldier comes to deport France and her. Furthermore, even if she does not talk to Lucien during the whole movie in order to express her disagreement, she still cooks meals for him and by that tacitly agrees for him to be in her home.

These are only a few examples of the complicated reality this movie highlights.

RECEPTION

The reception of the movie was highly problematic. The main character – Lucien – was qualified as a “dumb bastard” by Jean Delmas, a well-known film critic. His reaction is a good example of the extent to which the movie gave rise to a lot of moral criticisms.

The film director (Louis Malle) was accused of being indulgent towards the main character. And, this is not surprising. Twenty years before Lacombe Lucien, the film director Alain Resnais had been forced to mask – from one of his movie – the kepi of a French policeman standing in the Pithiviers internment camp to prevent people from realising that the French police collaborated with the Nazi regime.

Moreover, apart from the moral criticisms, there were also several political criticisms directed to the movie. Indeed, Lacombe Lucien questions the official standpoint French government took after the war, a storyline according to which French people were all against the Nazi regime and all took part in the Resistance.

Recommended Watching

This is a video from the ’97 Handover Ceremony.
I wonder if we could include a section of this – it illustrates some of our points very well.
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Screen shots might even make an interesting backdrop to our presentation. Chinese flag one side, British the other. However, if we could actually run a bit of the clip, I think that would best take advantage of the material.