Louis Malle (Director)

I think predictability has become the rule and I’m completely the opposite — I like spectators to be disturbed.

I do feel that it is essential for an artist to create a world, a world defined by a style and a vision. At the same time, I admire artists who move on, who don’t stick for ever to the same technique, the same expression.

Born: 30 October 1932, Thumeries, France.

Died: 23 November 1995, Beverly Hills, California, United States.

Directing career: 1956 – 1994.

Movement: The French New Wave.

Traits: Out of those young French filmmakers who emerged in the late 1950s, and were loosely grouped into a French New Wave, Louis Malle was one of the main outliers. Defying any auteurist categorisation, Malle’s career saw him work across different genres, different continents, in both fiction and documentary. Besides this diversity and versatility, his characteristics would be an unsentimental humanism and naturalism (although even this is challenged by some of his more surreal or anarchic films such as Black Moon and Zazie dans le métro). Probably his finest fiction work are depictions of childhood and adolescence, and cover the darker historical chapters of France’s past.

Collaborators: Jeanne Moreau (actress), Maurice Ronet (actor), Jean-Claude Carrière (screenwriter), Suzanne Baron (editor), Henri Decaë (cinematographer), Bernard Evein (set designer), Miles Davis (composer on Elevator to the Gallows).

Films reviewed:

Lacombe, Lucien (1974)
Milou en Mai (1990)


Lacombe, Lucien (1974)

With almost half a century of hindsight, it is clear that the very things which made Lacombe, Lucien so controversial upon its initial release are the same things that make it, to me, Malle’s strongest of his fiction films. Its uncompromisingly limpid and non-judgmental portrait of the blank face and moral vacuum of one adolescent peasant, recruited to commit acts of violent oppression for the Gestapo in occupied France, remains as disturbing and confrontational as ever.

The idea for the film’s conception came to Malle when he was making a documentary in Algeria during the war of independence and was confronted with French soldiers whose job was to torture Algerian prisoners. A question entered Malle’s head and lingered there for years: how and why could such ordinary young men commit fascistic acts of state-approved violence, not out of any ideology but from apparent boredom? A question and a wish to understand the roots of something, rather than merely accepting evil as its own cause and effect, this was the aim Lacombe, Lucien began with. After considering making the film about young paramilitaries in Mexico (those who end up appearing in Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, incidentally), then about American G.I.s in the Vietnam War, eventually Malle realised it had to be closer to home, about the nation that was his own and a conflict which he had childhood memories of (the same memories he’d later exorcise in 1987’s Au Revoir Les Enfants).

A history of collaboration

Thus came the making of Lacombe, Lucien, a fictional treatment of the philosophical question Malle had long contemplated, but one based on factual research and rooted in historical plausibility. Lucien’s story was an amalgamation of various real-life accounts Malle heard while scouting for locations in southwest France. Today, as national memory fades, it might seem surprising that Malle’s film was ever controversial, but it was and did pose a challenge to the official version of French history. The myth that France still needed to believe in, even decades after the war, was that there had been no willing collaborators with the Germans other than a few ideological traitors weeded out in the post-war transition. The truth was of course far more complicated, but had to be repressed — Alain Resnais’ seminal documentary Night and Fog notoriously had a few shots hinting at France’s role in the Holocaust blocked by French censors. The fact that French people had collaborated with the Nazis, helping them capture Jews, fight the Maquis, and impose a reign of oppression over Occupied France, is a can of worms that few circles in French culture and politics wanted to re-open.

The Sorrow and the Pity (1969): Marcel Ophuls’ epic documentary account of French collaboration in Occupied France, finally shown in French cinemas in 1971, was a watershed moment.

Not until Marcel Ophuls’ ground-breaking documentary The Sorrow and the Pity (completed in 1969 but first shown in French cinemas in 1971, in fact partly through the help of Louis Malle’s distribution contacts), with its detailed account of collaboration in Vichy France, was the idealised collective memory finally attacked. Things had changed quite a bit in France after May 1968; the former Resistance hero Charles De Gaulle was now seen by so many as a despised conservative leader. A revolution, at least in how France saw its own history, was perhaps now possible. In this climate, Malle thought it safe to start on Lacombe, Lucien, with Ophuls’ documentary having paved the way for his fictional account of things. Little did he suspect, in fact, that fiction would prove even more controversial — every character, every plot decision, was something he would be held accountable for, unlike Ophuls’ non-fiction approach, and the fall-out of the film’s controversy would lead to Malle’s self-imposed American exile.

Working at the hospice: the dull life Lucien wishes to transcend.

The rise of Lucien Lacombe…

Lucien is a peasant boy of 17 who hails from a village but works in the nearby town, as a cleaner at a hospice. This menial labour clearly offers him no greater sense of purpose and our Lucien dreams of something more fitting for his adventurous ego, even if he is unable to verbalise or imagine what that may be. He is essentially a blank page, waiting to be filled in. So is Lucien a victim of fate or does he have free will? The first major crossroads is out of his hands. He asks a local schoolteacher and Resistance contact to enlist him into the Maquis, but is promptly rebuffed — Lucien is presumably deemed too young, lacking specific skills and not useful enough. This part of the narrative is key in showing it is not ideology that drives him; had he been accepted into the Resistance, he would have been hailed as a hero. Instead, on a whim of fate Lucien will become an antihero, a bit like the way Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver switches from political assassin to vigilante “heroic” pimp-killer. Not that Lucien is a sociopath like Bickle; instead there is something of Martin Sheen’s character in Badlands within Lucien: he longs to transcend the rather meaningless and routine life which Fate has dealt him. In any case, Lucien definitely belongs among the great, complex antiheroes that the more psychologically unsentimental cinema of the 1970s was dishing out.

The next crucial turning point is more entwined between fate and free will. Shortly after being rejected by the Maquis, Lucien is returning to town after dark, hence after the official curfew, and ends up almost bumbling into the requisitioned hotel serving as HQ of the French Gestapo. There, he is at first arrested and scolded for being out at night, before the motley crew of societal rejects and amoral aristocrats forming the local German-sanctioned police take a patronising shine to him, adopting him almost as a mascot. For Lucien, this sudden acceptance is a chance to have something more exciting to do than cleaning floors and for a sense of identity and power which he never previously possessed, even if it means the arrest, torture and killing of other men who have done him no wrong. Lucien ‘accidentally’ falls into the Gestapo but is not completely a victim of fate: once taken into the collaborationist forces, he more than acquiesces to doing the dirty work, he comes to enjoy it. Malle therefore does not alleviate any responsibility from him. (Of course, one could ask what other options he had once in the grips of the Gestapo, running away or being incarcerated himself? But in a way this is irrelevant, the incriminating point is that Lucien comes to benefit from and enjoy the new identity bestowed upon him by his Gestapo work.)

Looking in the mirror: the divided identity of Lucien Lacombe.

Lucien’s need for an identity to don is neatly symbolised in another crucial moment of his narrative arc: his meeting with Albert Horn, the Jewish tailor from Paris hiding out with his mother and daughter in an attic-turned-apartment. When Lucien first meets Albert Horn, it is to commission the tailor to make a suit for him, to replace his peasant rags so he can look respectable amongst his new collaborator colleagues. It is important that Horn tailors it for him, choosing to make a golfer suit and cap which distinguishes him from other Gestapo goons. Indeed, Horn becomes a sort of unlikely father figure for Lucien (whose real father is a POW in Germany) and this relationship is crucial in setting up the film as Lucien’s tug-of-war between good and evil, a sort of battle for his soul. Clearly, if Lucien has any hope for redemption it will come from the Horns, who serve as a reminder to both film and Lucien of the other side of his amoral masquerade at Gestapo HQ: the very real suffering of innocent victims at the hands of Nazis and the French collaborators. Indeed, when Lucien first tries on his new suit, Malle’s mise-en-scene (generally quite subtle throughout the film) makes a point of indicating his divided self by staging him looking at his own reflection in the mirror. On which side of the balance will Lucien tip? Part of what makes the film such compelling viewing is the sense that we can never be sure of the answer to that, or even be sure that Lucien himself knows what he intends to do — he is a creature of instinct rather than reason.

But another way to read Lucien’s struggle for an identity, and his initiatory suit, is implied in the way Malle shapes Lucien’s narrative arc like that of a up-and-coming gangster in the classical Hollywood movies of the 1930s. Think of those early gangster films that defined the genre, Little Caesar, Scarface and most of all The Public Enemy, and they all share in common an inevitable rise and fall narrative. The gangster will rise up the ranks, give the audience a few amoral thrills by cutting corners in his social ascension (the scene where Lucien attempts to cut the bread queue can thus be read symbolically), before his crash back down to earth provides a cathartic reminder to viewers that in the end justice and moral order must prevail. As different as the context may be, something similar is going on in Malle’s movie. The French Gestapo whom Lucien now runs with are, in simple terms, a gang of violent goons extorting those around them (such as the Horns). The iconography emphasises this connection: they use machine guns, drive black sedans, wear smart hats and suits rather than SS-like uniforms. They could be right out of a 1930s Hollywood gangster movie.

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Lucien rises up these ranks with the usual gangster rites of initiation: his first lesson in how to use a gun, his first time out on a raid in the car, his exchanging one moll (the hapless lower class maid Marie) for a more glamorous upgrade (France Horn) much like James Cagney in The Public Enemy, and most symbolically having his own bespoke suit tailored for him. This is a staple moment of the classic Hollywood gangster pictures. Think again of Cagney in The Public Enemy having his measurements taken in that slightly odd scene at the tailor’s in gangster films, the suit makes the man. The gangster’s dream is one of rapid social mobility, of acquiring all the things not afforded to him, wealth, power, women and all other accoutrements that go with the lifestyle. This is Lucien’s dream too, to grasp that social mobility (impossible for a peasant boy like him), to completely turn the tables and go from lowly subaltern to the one holding the gun, and for a brief moment he seems to achieve it but (like the gangster’s dream) brief it must be. What is important once more here is that this completely removes any sense of politics or ideology from Lucien’s arc; a gangster has no political allegiance, he merely points his gun and grabs what he can while the opportunity arises.

The banality of evil

This draws us back to the crucial aspect of Lucien’s character: he is unthinking, acts on instinct, without really questioning and without thinking before doing. Malle’s tolerance of human foibles allows his film to depict Lucien with neither moralistic sentimentality nor judgment. Instead, this is a cool and collected portrait of one of the ‘villains’ of history, affording him psychological complexity. All this makes Lacombe, Lucien one of the greatest cinematic representations of what the great political philosopher Hannah Arendt famously termed the ‘banality of evil’. While attending Adolf Eichmann’s trial in 1961, Arendt proposed a new way to think about evil and evil acts. Listening to Eichmann’s cold detached refusal to take responsibility, she realised that in a system that committed evil (and Arendt never meant to say the deeds themselves were banal, but rather the perpetrators) on such a mass scale, there had to be a level of normalisation of evil. Evil became routine, mundane, something people were numb to and which was officialised from the back of a desk by typing and signing documents. In other words, the exact same lack of thinking and critical ability which Lucien demonstrates when confronted with evil.

In Arendt’s picture, Nazism loses its aura of grandiose, abstract and unimaginably maleficent ‘evil’ as if it’s the inexorable work of Satan himself, in order to be reduced to the processes, operations and choices of mere mortals. The bureaucrats, the clerks, the secretaries, those who made the evil of the Nazi regime and its collaborative forces the accepted norm, these are the cogs who mechanised the real-life manifestations of what cannot be so easily dismissed as an abstract evil, for to do so is to refuse to apprehend it and how it occurs. That Malle’s film is one about the bureaucratisation of evil (and the fight for an individual identity within this bureaucratisation) is already evident from the title: the surname coming first is the official bureaucratic way of identifying yourself in France. Throughout the film, a mundane normalisation of evil is seen to command over individual ability to think, question, have a conscience. Characters at Gestapo HQ perform daily duties with a blasé approach, a routine as chilling as it is lucidly portrayed by Malle. The French Gestapo’s secretary stamps her daily batch of documents licensing the arrests, torture and executions of many, but the only comment she emits is a nonchalant grumble about her broken fingernail. Later, as torture goes on in the bathroom of the second floor, the denizens of the HQ are more concerned with playing ping-pong, moaning about the heat, or in the case of the bored aristocrat’s moll Betty Beaulieu simply watching the torture for entertainment.

The banality and bureaucratisation of evil: typewriters, documents and mundane routine hide the evil acts in Gestapo HQ.

The evil they enact is often very petty. The first time we see Lucien out on a mission with a French Gestapo brigade, they use deception to infiltrate the middle-class home of a Resistance-assisting doctor, and we see no great violence perpetrated (although we can surmise the doctor’s eventual fate), but instead the act of Lucien with his trademark vapid expression dismembering the carefully-built model ship just finished by the doctor’s son stands in for any violence. It is so blandly sadistic, so banal in its target, and so cheap in its intent to hurt the boy, that the scene becomes far more affecting than the mere destruction of a wooden object should be. Again, throughout all this, Lucien seems to operate without thought process, purely on an instinct which tells him to fill the void inside himself, that lack of an identity. Something all the rejects (rejected from the police, from high society, from the film industry) making up the French Gestapo team seem to share. With few exceptions, their hatred does not stem from grand ideology, or from any level of philosophical questioning, but rather out of self-pity, frustration and pettiness.

The fall of Lucien Lacombe (and Pierre Blaise…)

We’re back to the gangster figure, then, with their personal frustrated longing to flip the tables of social hierarchy, an attempt at a ‘social revolution’ which transformed Lucien from peasant labourer to Gestapo gangster. All these attempts are doomed to fail, as Malle lets us know by employing the rules of the gangster genre: the fall is as inevitable as the gangster’s rise. Lucien, like the maid Marie and like the Caribbean member of the French Gestapo, are disenfranchised cogs, hoping to leverage individual benefits, but working for a Fascist system which can only ever oppress them. They too are victims of a system defined by the banality of evil, where acts are perpetrated with thoughtlessness. How else to explain their position, stuck in situations much bigger than themselves, but unable to think beyond short-term gratification or about larger forces at work? Uncritical apolitical and amoral stances is what turns them into oppressed people who oppress others (even the wretched maid Marie has a particularly nasty anti-semitic streak, more out of self-pity than anything).

Lucien is in some ways a figure of tragic irony. The fact the film is set in June 1944, around the time of D-Day and very soon before the Liberation of France, only increases that irony. Had Lucien been able to lie low for a few more weeks rather than ‘falling’ into the Gestapo, he would not have been on the wrong side of History. We know this while watching, even though Lucien does not. Likewise the shabby makeshift nature of both settings he shares his time between (the requisitioned hotel serving as Gestapo HQ and dank, dusky attic serving as apartment for the Horns) remind us of the temporariness of this situation, even as Lucien himself cannot see it. All this makes Malle’s ending even stronger and all the more necessary: he does not let us see Lucien’s downfall and hence curtails the chance for him to be viewed as a tragic victim of fate.

Through the looking glass: once Lucien observes and becomes implicated in acts of torture at the Gestapo HQ, there is no way back. But to what extent does free will or fate control his arc?

It would be impossible to imagine Lacombe, Lucien without the performance of untrained actor Pierre Blaise, who is in every scene. To look into the face of Blaise, a local of rural southwest France found accidentally by Malle, to register the instinct and peasant roots he brings to the title role, to see his surly complexion, his furrowed brow, all this is to see the blank canvas of a human soul wrestling between good and evil. This is the controversial part: to look so deeply into this boy’s face is to be equivocal about the horrors committed in the name of Nazism in France during WW2, because to look at him through Malle’s gaze is to try to understand him rather than to demonise. As Malle himself put it: “Pierre Blaise was so good he got me into trouble. A lot of people saw the film almost as an apology for a collaborator because Blaise was so moving and disturbing that you could not completely hate him.” Interestingly, Blaise grew into the character as the shooting went on, much like Lucien himself grows into his ‘suit’. So proud was he that he refused to be bossed around by the crew; Malle, who knew how vital Blaise was, told his staff to “treat him as if he were Alain Delon” (the fact Delon was a gangster as well as a star is coincidence but worth pointing out). Perhaps, like Lucien, Blaise enjoyed a newfound sense of power and identity, of being treated like a big man for once. But the symbiosis between character and actor went beyond the film, and Blaise crashed his speeding car on a rainy night and died (as did his two passengers) only a year later. A tragic rise and fall, indeed. (November 2020)


Milou en Mai (1990)

May 1968, the south of France: an eccentric group of relatives convene in a countryside estate to squabble over the inheritance left by their just-deceased grandmother, whose body is still in the library — cemetery workers are on strike, after all. Far removed from events they may be, but the wave of counter-establishment fervor sweeps along even this motley crew: they subconsciously hum the ‘Internationale’, form an impromptu commune, want to partake in ‘free love’… Malle’s charming comical send-up works as metaphor for France itself, the highs and lows and the rifts left in the wake of May 68. Its obvious ancestor is Renoir’s La Règle du Jeu but with Jean-Claude Carrière as co-writer and the presence of Michel Piccoli, it makes us think of Buñuel’s Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. In that film a group kept unsuccessfully trying to have a meal, while here it is a funeral that can never go ahead. (May 2018)

Originally posted in 10 Must-See Films about May 1968.

4 thoughts on “Louis Malle (Director)

  1. Great essay! Most particularly, I liked the comparison of Gestapo officers with gangsters, I recalled the attitude of a mass killer from The Act of Killing who idolized both Nazis, for their sadism, and gangsters from American movies.

    1. Thanks for reading!
      That’s a great comparison actually, because there too those Indonesian men were enacting violence in a way that fits the question Louis Malle was asking himself when making Lacombe, Lucien. There really is something to the idea that these men have a vacuum inside which they fill with a fascistic conception about what a ‘gangster’ persona should be… Could it be that these men committing these horrible acts feel empowered because they are putting on a masquerade, almost like they are suddenly no longer themselves and that is what allows them to do the evil they did? You’ve made me want to think about this more and re-visit The Act of Killing now!

      1. I believe that they are fascinated by the ‘coolness’ and life without any restraints; as you showed in your essay, it is more thrilling (leaving ethical questions aside for a moment, for the sake of the argument) to live the life of a gangster, a hedonistic killer, than be a working-class man without any joy in life. In Scarface, Tony starts working at fast food joint, but soon, he replaces that vocation with that of a murderous gangster. People are fascinated with life with no rules at all, sadly, and they are prepared to forget everything that makes them human simply to be ‘respected’ and enjoy life in a sadistic manner. It is about thymos, in many respects, sadly, I must use the word again, one can gain more respect from others (villains and crooks, but let’s say it doesn’t matter, for the sake of the argument) if you live the life of a gangster in comparison to being an ordinary working class man.

      2. Re: the thrill of living that life, I think it was Andrew Sarris who called the gangster movies a twisted version of the American Dream, and that’s right for sure. They do acquire a lifestyle and respect most people would want to have, but do it by means that transcend society’s codes. I think the fact that we should so crave this power, and that as you say a man of power is more respected than a working class man, is precisely why this ‘Dream’ is a mirage. But anyway, in the case of Lucien Lacombe, I have to add that he is also an empty page waiting to be filled, and if he has any ambitions he does not know what they are exactly. That makes him a little different to the Scarfaces of the world who know what they want and are obsessed with it. Maybe it is what makes him an even more fascinating character to watch, to me.

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