Wednesday, May 28, 2014

LACOMBE, LUCIEN (1974) &
AU REVOIR, LES ENFANTS (1987) - Louis Malle


I spent the rainier part of the Memorial Day weekend with two of Louis Malle's World War II dramas about the German occupation of France. Both are seen through the eyes of young French adolescent/teen protagonist, both of them quite good. Semi-autobiographical bookends, if you will, of Malle's own experiences as a child of the war.

Lacombe, Lucien was the more engaging because its titular character is not only a witness to the atrocities in his small town (the detainment and interrogation of local Jews) but an active participant for the wrong side. Lucien's decision to become a German collaborator is born of no real political agenda other than being turned down initially to join the Resistance like his father. Basically, Lucien is bored and becoming a government-sanctioned bully just looks like more fun. The perks of cutting to the front of bread lines alone are fantastic! He is the type of guy who during his idle moments on his job at the local hospital kills chickens and rabbits with slingshots. In fact, this movie has an inordinate amount of scenes with Lucien thwacking a maimed rabbit head's with his fist or casually ripping the head off a live chicken. If it wasn't the Nazis, I'm pretty sure young Lucien would be a prime candidate for the local mafia. He just has that certain Henry Hill quality about him.

Compassion continues to run low with this fellow in his new Nazi threads. Then he meets a Jewish tailor in hiding...and his fetching young daughter. Even then, Lucien operates mostly in thug mode, using the knowledge he has of their secret arrangement with the Germans to insinuate himself into their lives, whether they like it or not. The elder tailor says it best: "It's funny...I can't manage to hate you completely." And neither can we. After all, when it comes down to it, he's just a dangerously misguided kid with a few good instincts left in him. Probably a few more rabbit thwacks, too.


Au Revoir is the Occupation seen through the institutional scrim of kids at a Catholic boarding school. Young Julien (pictured above) develops a friendship with a classmate he suspects might be a Jewish child in hiding. He does a little detective work (when he's not wetting the bed) and confirms his real last name is not Bonnet but Kippelstein. Unlike Lucien, Julien is more a curious than collaborative sort. About the worst thing that happens is he goads his new friend to try some pâté  (thereby testing his "kosher-ness"). They get in a playground scuffle but quickly make amends.
It's a milder coming of age story set during a tumultuous time...at least until the heartbreaking closing shot. Watching Julien stand there powerless as the Gestapo take his new BFF away, you practically see him age fifty years into the cynical man he will likely become. That man? A chap named Louis Malle, I would suspect.

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