Saturday 26 November 2016

Cinema as a compelling mirror, by Carol Drinkwater

A day or so ago I watched, for the first time in many years, Louis Malle's wonderful film,  Lacombe, Lucien. I don't think I have seen it since it was first released in 1974, when I was a young actress living in London. I would have been audience at the Hampstead Everyman or that wonderful Academy 1 and 2 in Oxford Street. I cannot remember whether it was shown in French with English sub-titles or dubbed into English. Either way, I would not have appreciated the nuances of the regional accents particularly that of the young actor, Pierre Blaise, who played the titular role of Lucien, the seventeen-year-old farm boy. Blaise, who was picked from amongst amateurs by Malle, talks with a southern accent so strong that even now after thirty years of living in Provence I had some difficulty following lines of his dialogue. Think Geordie for foreigners.
Aurore Clement plays a young German Jewess hiding out with her father and grandmother in a remote rural corner of southern France. The family escaped from Germany to Paris. When the Germans marched in to the capital, they fled once more to the south where we find them in hiding. This well-trodden path in search of a safe base became the modus vivendi for many Jews who had originally arrived into Paris from Germany or Eastern Europe. Their safer tenures in the south were, for the majority, short-lived.
At my original viewing of the film, I was bowled over by the extraordinary beauty of Aurore Clement whose photograph was then pinned to the wall of my attic bedroom in my rambling old flat in Kentish Town, where it stayed, I think, until I moved on from that address. But I feel sure now that the groundbreaking subject matter of the film was probably almost entirely lost on me.

Aurore Clement as France Horn in Lacombe, Lucien

Aurore Clement is now 71 (still beautiful from the pics I found on the internet). Pierre Blaise who  was both mesmeric and a fine young actor was killed in a car crash in 1975 at the age of 20, the year after the film was released.

In 1973, when Malle was preparing this film, he already had eight successful features to his name. As  well, as a younger filmmaker he had worked as co-director with Jacques Cousteau on the Academy-Award winning documentary,  The Silent World.

The reason I bought the DVD recently was because I wanted to look at the film from a couple of different aspects; no longer from the point of view of an actress but that of the writer, and also for the story's historical content. The film is a fascinating portrait of French collaboration, released at a time when the subject was taboo in France, who collaboration was denied.

De Gaulle himself when he returned home refuted the idea that France had ever been anything but the Republic, an oppressed republic. This later became known as the Gaullist Resistance Myth. It wasn't until the early 70s when writers, historians and artists began to speak out, that the myth started to crumble. Many who were not direct supporters of the collaboration were held to account because they did nothing. Because they did not resist. Historians began to claim that collaboration was not forced upon France; many chose it and others turned a blind eye. Apathy, if not downright collaboration, allowed the regime to flourish.
This is an important issue and one that is becoming relevant again today when one considers that almost fifty per cent of the United States voters did not go to the polls during this recent election.

Both Malle and his co-writer, Patrick Modiano, were haunted by the years of Nazi occupation in France. For different reasons. Malle, born in 1932, was a child during the war and always felt himself implicated in the moral issues that growing up in occupied France would have thrown up for any sensitive child. His later film, another masterpiece, Au Revoir Les Enfants, (1987), recounts the story of pupil, Julien Quentin, and how his life is changed when three Jewish boys are given refuge at his Catholic boarding school. Friendships are bonded and broken when the three boys and the priest who has accepted to hide the Jewish pupils are arrested and taken away by the Nazis. All die in camps. The film is autobiographical.

                                                                           Louis Malle

Along with Louis Malle, Patrick Modiano is co-credited for the (terrific) screenplay of Lacombe, Lucien. Modiano, thirteen years Malle's junior, was born in the Paris suburbs in 1945 to a Jewish-Italian father and an actress mother. They met in occupied Paris and carried out a clandestine relationship. Soon after Patrick was born, they separated and Patrick was brought up by various people including his maternal grandparents. His father, Albert, refused to wear the obligatory Yellow Star. Nor did he declare himself to the authorities when they were rounding up the Jews.  Albert was arrested in 1942 but managed, through the help of a friend, to avoid deportation. He worked as a black marketeer and with the French Gestapo during the war years. Albert Modiano never owned up to his son about his nefarious doings during those years. 
The novels of Patrick Modiano, Nobel Laureate for Literature 2014, are frequently peopled by shady characters and collaborators, or those on the run. This is partly what makes Modiano's work so extraordinary.  Conscience, the outsider, he who works by night, guilt, memory ... all haunt his work.

                                                                      Patrick Modiano

Malle and Modiano were the perfect fit for the groundbreaking subject of Lacombe, Lucien.

The action of the film is set in 1944 in south-west France close to the Spanish border during the German Occupation. It tells the tale of a seventeen-year-old peasant boy, Lucien, an anti-hero, whose father is an imprisoned member of the Resistance. Lucien, who seems to delight in killing and hunting small creatures, wants to get away from home - his mother is having an affair with a local farmer - to follow in his father's footsteps, but he is not taken seriously. He is rejected by the local schoolmaster, also a member of the Resistance, because he is too young.
Quite by chance Lucien finds himself falling in with a nest of collaborators, French agents working for the Gestapo, whose headquarters are at a hotel, La Grotto. They take in the lad and give him a job with the 'Police Allemande' after he has proved himself by betraying the school teacher who refused him a place amongst the partisans.

One of the French collaborators, along with his actress girlfriend, befriends Lucien. He takes the boy to a tailor to have a suit made. The tailor, Horn, is a Jew who has fled Germany and then Paris. It is when Lucien sets eyes on Horn's daughter, France, that the complexities of the narrative really set in. Naive, uncouth, barely more than a virgin, Lucien becomes besotted with the young woman and by the end of the film he helps her and her grandmother - the tailor, Horn, has been arrested - escape. However, the stolen car gives up before they have crossed the border into Spain and they are forced to take refuge - a most unlikely threesome - in a remote, abandoned farmhouse.

Throughout the film, the question of Lucien's complicity is, laid out before the spectator. Malle has chosen a very attractive and rather charming young actor for the role so our sympathies are easily given to the character. Is he a cruel, unfeeling boy or is he misguided? If he had been offered a role within the Resistance would his life have turned out differently? Can he be held responsible?
The last frame sees him sleeping in a field while France bathes naked in a nearby stream. Lucien seems so perfectly relaxed, at peace for the first time, that for one fleeting moment, you ask yourself whether the three might find a way to survive, yet you know, because a lurking danger is gnawing at your spectator's guts, that for different reasons they cannot survive; they are all hunted. Lucien, for his blatant betrayal of his own people and France along with her grandmother because they are Jews. Superimposed over the last image of the film are the bald sentences:

                                      Lucien Lacombe was arrested on October 12, 1944.
                 Tried by a military court of the Resistance, he was sentenced to death and executed. 

When the film was over, I felt saddened for the boy, for his loss of life, for his stupidity and all that was not to be. Still, he chose that path. He was complicit. There are two very moving scenes when Lucien's mother comes looking for him and finds him at the Horns' apartment. She has brought with her a small black coffin with Lucien's name engraved on it. It has been left at her door. A warning to Lucien to give up his treachery. His mother's eyes beg him to come home, to quit the shaming role he has taken. He refuses, saying that he is fine where he is. She steps away, and you feel swamped by the depth of a mother's conflict and heartbreak.

The film has been restored and is available in Blu Ray.  It is a masterpiece as relevant today as when it was first shot. Stunning photography, long close-ups on faces that take you to the characters' souls. If you haven't seen it, I urge you to find a copy.

Since I watched it, I have been asking myself over and over about where our world is going given the recent election results in the United States. We are witnessing the rise of Nationalism, white supremacy, racism, closed borders, Islamophobia, misogyny, anti-Semitism. Nazism.
Our world is in danger of regression. Values and liberties our parents, grandparents, previous generations fought or voted for, put their lives at risk for, might soon be lost. There is no place for apathy. We stand up and are counted, or we become a silent vote that condones these very real dangers.

Works of art have the possibility of reminding us; they can nudge our collective memories and help us learn from the past. Lest we forget.


Miranda Miller said...

I recently read Patrick Modiano's three novellas, Suspended Sentences, and was very impressed by his moral ambiguity. In England for the last seventy years we have told ourselves a simplified story of the Second World War, with us of course as the goodies, and this naivety leaves us vulnerable to to the new forms of fascism that are seizing power in our failing democracies.

Sue Purkiss said...

Will look for this film - the subject matter chimes with what I'm working on at the moment. Thanks, Carol!

Susan Chapek said...

I didn't know about this film--thank you for enlightening me. I'll look for it.

Grier said...

I haven't seen this movie either and will look for it. The lessons of history are there for us to learn from but many are won't see the dangers of the Trumpism and the Nationalist movements. Thank you for a timely and enlightening post.