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The Criterion Collection: Lacombe, Lucien

As with all of director Louis Malle's coming-of-age films, Lacombe, Lucien (1974) is about more than just a young boy ripening into manhood. Set in France in 1944, it follows 17-year-old farmboy Lucien (Pierre Blaise), who works as an orderly in a village infirmary when not spending time on the farm once owned by his imprisoned father. Lucien exposes a cruel streak early on when he kills a chirping bird with a slingshot, exhibits unrestrained joy in hunting rabbits, and when he coldly catches a farmyard chicken, pounding it to death with his bare hands. Rebuffed as too young — and, perhaps, as morally suspect — by the local schoolteacher who serves as a recruiter for the Resistance ("We have enough like you. The underground isn't like poaching — it's like the army"), Lucien instead becomes an informant for the local Vichy police, almost inadvertently giving up the teacher who had turned him away the previous day (an act that has a parallel in Malle's Au Revoir, Les Enfants). He comes under the wing of Jean-Bernard (Stéphane Bouy), a count who works for the Gestapo, and he fulfills his desire to hunt down people, rather than rabbits — so what if it's for the other side? Malle's observations of humanity have always been complex, and this film is no exception — Lucien's an apolitical and almost entirely amoral boy, becoming a turncoat for no reason other than power and prestige. He does have a dark inner life, yes, but really he's just a powerless adolescent flailing about for meaning. A young unknown actor, Blaise brings an interesting balance of innocence and violent potential to Lucien (the 22-year-old Blaise had made just one film previous to this and appeared in two others before dying in an automobile accident a year later). Lucien's mother repeatedly reassures herself and others that he's a "good boy," and those that he encounters comment that he doesn't look like a thug or a torturer. When he finds himself falling for the daughter of Jewish tailor (the lovely Aurore Clément), his newfound power serves him well, allowing him to "woo" his beloved by holding the threat of disclosure to the Gestapo over her head. Malle's picture, considered the first French film to examine the role of Nazi collaborators in World War II, is sometimes claustrophobic, sometimes unpleasant, and always authentic. It's a fascinating study of the potential for evil that lurks in the human heart, balanced by stunningly beautiful images of the French countryside by cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli (Once Upon a Time in America, Death and the Maiden) and a jaunty, lovely score by the legendary Django Reinhardt.

The Criterion Collection offers Lacombe, Lucien as part of their "3 Films by Louis Malle" collection, packaged with Au Revoir, Les Enfants and Murmur of the Heart. The new, high-def digital transfer (offered in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio) is superb, showcasing Malle's muted color palette without sacrificing sharpness or detail. It's a virtually flawless presentation, made by scanning the original 35mm negative in 2K resolution, digitally color corrected, and then restored to remove scratches, dust, and noise. The dual-layer disc was encoded at the highest possible bit-rate, offering a truly stunning presentation. The remastered Dolby Digital 1.0 audio (in French, with newly translated English subtitles) is equally good, coming through the center channel of a 5.1 system but so clean and clear that it's hardly even noticeable that it's monaural. The disc includes the original theatrical trailer and a booklet containing an excellent essay by film critic Pauline Kael. Keep-case.
—Dawn Taylor



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