This is a repost of a piece I wrote for the French History Network on Louis Malle’s Lacombe, Lucien cleaned up and retooled for my own site.
Two things prompted me to write this post in appreciation of Louis Malle’s Lacombe, Lucien. The first was a mundane training exercise for a new teaching job. The other was a two page spread in Le Monde discussing Olivier Roy’s new book on jihadism, Le Djihad et la Mort. Roy’s book arrives at an opportune moment, with the Paris and Nice atrocities (among many others) still painfully recent, and the ongoing military campaign against Islamic State in the Middle East appearing in the news daily.
It also arrives during the primary campaign for the candidature of the right for the French presidential election of 2017; a campaign that has hinged on a debate between Alain Juppé and Nicolas Sarkozy (as well as the other candidates) about the causes of radicalisation among a small section of young men and women, and the nature of national identity in France. This debate will only get more extreme whether it is François Hollande, the consensus-seeking Juppé, or the more divisive Sarkozy who goes on to face the Front National leader Marine Le Pen if, as predicted, she makes it to the final round of voting in April 2017.
And the training? I’m sure I’m not the only VL who’s had to do a bit of online training regarding the government’s ‘Prevent Strategy’, aimed at flagging up the signs of radicalisation in students. The various scenarios enacted in the videos I watched seemed occasionally comically self-parodying of the scrupulous even-handedness of all university administration-derived material. However, being a parent of two university age boys, and remembering the angst of being such a thing myself at one time, I did my best to take it seriously. Flippancy isn’t really appropriate for such an important subject, even if it’s tempting at times.
The recollection of troubled teenagerdom is what reminded me of Lacombe, Lucien. In the opening scene of the film the central character, Lucien, who is a cleaner in a hospice, callously kills a songbird with a slingshot in between his cleaning duties. At the time that I saw it for the first time I really wish I’d had a more intellectual response but I think my thoughts were more along the lines of, ‘What the dick has he done that for?!’ Of course Malle and Modiano are laying a foreshadowing motif of further cruelty to come. But on a personal level it also brought back one of those involuntary memories that are especially painful because they’re buried so deep. Of being a young boy in a crappy provincial town who threw stones for no good reason at an older but entirely innocent school fellow. If only those madeleine moments were always sweet. Why would I have done that?
And this is the question that has most troubled critics of Malle’s film. Both those who see it as a defining film about the Occupation in France, and those who see it as ‘sidestepping the issues of political choice, morality and guilt’ by representing Lucien’s journey from casually cruel peasant to torture indifferent Milicien as merely a piece of chance. Mulling over why I might not have turned from stone cold rock thrower to gun-toting radical (it’s not entirely improbably, most of the examples in the Prevent training, for obvious reasons in the Westminster context, were of the radicalised right. The North East of England where I grew up was, and continues to be in my experience, a significant source of National Front style agitation) I saw structural reasons that Malle and Modiano give for Lucien’s actions that also go some way, and I emphasise some way, to contextualizing current radicalisation in Western Europe.
The most trenchant critic of the film accuses the protagonist of being ‘a cipher’, merely attracted by the symbols of power – a gun, a Milice identity card, bigwig friends – rather than having any ‘social causes for collaboration.’ More subtle readings, however, have dominated writing on the film since the 1970s, with Leah D. Hewitt, to my mind, putting her finger on Malle and Modiano’s explanation for the supposedly mindless way in which Lucien is induced to join what to modern eyes seems is a grotesque troupe of collaborators.
Malle, in interviews contemporary to the film’s release, said that his first instinct had either been to set the film in Algeria or in Mexico. Algeria during the War of Independence – a common feature of Malle’s films even if he never used the war as a main subject – or Mexico during the violent put-down of a student protest by bussed in peasant workers in the 1960s. Thus one can see that Malle’s finished film was primarily prompted by an interest in how one group of young people could be attracted or induced into violently oppressing another group with whom they had varying degrees of common culture and not by the specific circumstances of the Occupation. He said he wanted to ‘scrutinise a kind of behaviour that is very hard to understand and was certainly contemptible.’
So how might we understand Lucien’s own contemptible behaviour? Here is a young man, already habituated to the petty violence of rural life, who is rejected on three occasions in the opening scenes of the film. First, a forced rejection by his father, who is carted off to Germany to labour with the Service du Travail Obligatoire. Secondly, his mother and her lover, who let out the family home without telling Lucien and set up house together. And then when the local maquis leader, a teacher, rejects him for being too young and potentially ill disciplined. In the next scene he falls in with the Milice and the film proper begins.
In these rejections, and in Lucien’s response, Kedward sees ‘an agonised expression of generational conflict’ with Lucien’s youth being central to the film. This brings us to some of the ways that we can explain the current radicalization of young people in France and Western Europe that doesn’t rely on Sarkozy’s or Le Pen’s boneheaded (to a purpose, it’s all about the them and us) characterisation of Islam as un-French and more prone to violence than any other faith. As Olivier Roy points out violence in the name of Islam, as inspired by IS has more in common with the Red Brigade or the Baader Meinhof Faction than with Islam, being essentially nihilist. It is a very extreme and foul way of expressing dislocation from society but it has to be explicable, it doesn’t happen by chance.
Just as Lucien is dislocated by the lack of a reliable father figure in his community and in the end picks the worst such men of all so might young men and women who are continually characterised as a group as not belonging to the society in which they live, often at the margin and with family ties stretched taut by the experience of migration, end up rejecting that society. Throwing a stone at a classmate didn’t lead to anything but a guilty conscience in my case but then I had little genuine reason to feel like an outsider in my town and little temptation or opportunity to express my sense of rejection in a more systematic and violent way.
Lucien does. The fascist political structure, even if Lucien is not motivated by its ideology, is on hand to direct his energies. He hears its anti-semitic views on the radio and amongst his comrades and it attracts his loyalty through the glamour of the gun and of the aristocrat, the starlet and the cyclist who make up the fascist gangsters and who encourage him to feel as though he belongs with them. So too does IS use the glamour of violence and power via the media to give its own adherents, however distant they may be from the purveyors of the message, to feel as though they belong to a separate group from the society in which they live. Which I hope does not overstate the analogy between the two examples. Rather, I hope to show that Lacombe, Lucien, which can be justifiably used as a piece of historical interpretation about a specific time and place, can also be used as a parable to explore a much more universal experience.
To see a trailer for the film go here.
 Le Monde, 13th October 2013. Olivier Roy, Le Djihad et la Mort (Paris: Seuil, 2016)
 Gilles Finchelstein, ‘Identité: le piège se referme sur la droite’, Le Monde, 26th October 2016
 Louis Malle and Patrick Modiano, Lacombe, Lucien: Texte Intégrale (Paris: Folio Plus Classiques, 2008), 8
 A view ascribed to the reading of the film by Cahiers du Cinéma at the film’s release in 1974 in H.R. Kedward, ‘The Anti-Carnival of Collaboration: Louis Malle’s ‘Lacombe, Lucien (1974), 227-239 in Susan Hayward and Ginette Vincendeau, French Film: Texts and Contexts (Routledge: London), 228
 Lenny Rubinstein, ‘The Fascism of Banality’, 10-12 in Cinéaste 6:4 (1975), 10
 Leah D. Hewitt, ‘Salubrious Scandals/Effective Provocations: Identity Politics Surrounding ‘Lacombe, Lucien’, 71-87 in South Central Review, 17:3 (2003)
 Malle, quoted in Hewitt, ‘Salubrious Scandals’, 73
 Kedward, ‘The Anti-Carnival of Collaboration’, 232
Blue Badge guide to London and academic specialising in early twentieth century history. Blogging on history, academia, and food and culture in the capital (and occasionally elsewhere).