As LACOMBE LUCIEN begins, you assume you'll like the main character. We find him at work in a nursing home. He decides to take a break from the tedious job of washing the floors, goes to the window to get a glimpse of the sunny day and enjoy the beauty of a small yellow songbird singing in a tree. We then see him reach in his pocket, take out a slingshot, and kill the bird. Later we'll see he does the same with rabbits and chickens. It's the Lucien of the beginning of the film and the one who we still see at the end.
LACOMBE LUCIEN, directed by Louis Malle, is a film that tells the story of Lucien, a troubled young man who appears to have few friends and is not welcome at home. We learn his father is in prison and his mother has taken up with someone else. Though we never learn about the father's absence, it's likely that it has something to do with the war which may be why Lucien seems to want to be a member of the French Resistance. He tries to join, but is rebuffed by a former teacher who believes he's too young and undisciplined. Lucien has an ambivalent reaction to the rebuff and we assume he'll just continue his employment at the nursing home. The action changes when patrons at a hotel capture Lucien's attention. His curiosity gets him in trouble but ends up being an opportunity. He then becomes involved with the police who are in line with the Gestapo.
Pierre Bliase is an excellent Lucien. He's consistent throughout and never gives us a chance to see the character as a lovable ruffian who would be different if is someone cared. Holger Lowenadler plays Albert Horn, a Jewish tailor and the father of Aurore Clement's France, the woman who becomes Lucien's love interest. The Horns accommodate Lucien, but it's unclear as to whether he realizes it is out of convenience and nothing more. Other characters in the film include members of the police who seem like typical turncoats, a middle aged maid who has a brief romantic entanglement with Lucien, and the villagers of Lucien's hometown. Like Malle's AU REVOIR LES ENFANTS, we get a feeling of occupied France toward the end of the war.
At the time of its release, the film was somewhat controversial. Only French resisters with noble character made it to the screen. Lucien is anything but noble. He's a misfit who never would have been accepted as a member of the police if it had not been 1944. Anyone with even a glimmer of intelligence knew the American would be liberating France in due time and had changed their loyalties but Lucien is unaware of any reality outside his own world. Malle had originally planned on setting the film in Mexico during a revolution but was unable to film in that country, so he decided that the setting could be France and the story set in the late days of the war. No one would ever guess from viewing the film of these changes which is a testament to the strength of Lucien's character and why the film can be so haunting today as we wonder what causes young people to become terrorists, join gangs, or take the wrong side in struggles that are ultimately against their best interest.