ANOTHER COUNTRY | Lacombe, Lucien

Lacombe, Lucien is a film of actions whose morality is hard to judge. By Louis Rogers

In his poem “The Need of Being Versed in Country Things”, Robert Frost pictures a burning farmhouse and the relative indifference of the natural world around it. Describing some birds that have contentedly re-settled in the barn across the way, Frost concludes: “though they rejoiced in the nest they kept,/ One had to be versed in country things/ Not to believe the phoebes wept.” 

As Louis Malle’s film Lacombe, Lucien opens in the rural south of France, city-dwelling viewers are liable to feel a similar need: in the matter-of-fact course of daily life, rabbits are shot and skinned, chickens decapitated with a blunt swings of a stick, dead horses dragged astride carts bound for the knacker’s yard. The titular protagonist Lucien is introduced to us at his day job swilling out bed pans at the hospital; when he hears delicate birdsong from beyond the window, he slips out his slingshot and knocks the culprit out of the tree with a hard, precise shot. Is this the marker of a callous, idly vindictive person? Or are we a bit soft and citied to think this: do we need to be versed in country things to have the proper perspective?

Lacombe, Lucien is a film of actions whose morality is hard to judge. Through its establishment in a hard-bitten world of farming folk, we are even provoked to wonder whether “morality” is the right framework to be applying to it at all. Lucien’s decisions, whose personal and political ramifications are dire, seem informed by the simplest, reactionary motivations: immediate comfort; adolescent insecurity; even boredom. Occupied France has become enshrined as a theatre of high-stakes moral dramas – we all like to think we would have joined the resistance. Lucien, however, is guided by impulses that are petty, arbitrary, even animalistic.

But Lucien is not an animal – the fact is only underscored by the exquisitely filmed animals that do populate the film: insects; wild hares; livestock; an enormous great dane that slopes around the Gestapo headquarters. Lucien’s disturbing sensibility is so compelling because it is so human. As Frost quietly observes within his poem, an affinity with the way of “country things” is not a primitive or natural state, but something in which you must be “versed”, just the way you might be versed in ethics or poetry.