In June 1944, as the Allies are fighting the Germans in Normandy, Lucien Lacombe, a 17-year-old country boy, tries to join the Resistance. The local Resistance leader, the village schoolteacher, turns him down on grounds of age. Arrested by chance, Lucien is taken to the local headquarters of the Carlingue, the French auxiliaries of the Gestapo. There he unwittingly denounces the teacher, who is brought in and tortured. Seeing that Lucien could be useful, the Carlingue recruit him into their lawless regime of extortion and terror.
He enjoys his new power and position, but falls in love with France Horn. She is a French-born Jewish girl living in seclusion with her father Albert, a tailor, and her paternal grandmother Bella, who are living in fear of deportation. Forcing himself upon the girl, Lucien becomes protective of the very people targeted by his superiors. Albert, giving up hope, surrenders himself to the Carlingue, who alert the Germans to the two other Jews. When a German soldier comes to arrest them, Lucien kills him and takes the women to an abandoned farm.
But he knows that he has chosen the wrong side and that his crimes will be found out. The film ends at this point and a final message on screen says that Lucien was caught, tried and executed by the Resistance.Pierre Blaise as Lucien Lacombe
Aurore Clément as France Horn
Therese Giehse as Bella Horn
Holger Löwenadler as Albert Horn
Stéphane Bouy as Jean-Bernard
Loumi Iacobesco as Betty Beaulieu
René Bouloc as Faure
Pierre Decazes as Aubert
Jean Rougerie as Tonin, the chief of police
Cécile Ricard as Marie, the hotel maid
Jacqueline Staup as Lucienne Chauvelot
Ave Ninchi as Mme Georges
Pierre Saintons as Hippolyte, the black collaborator
Gilberte Rivet as Lucien's mother
Jacques Rispal as M. Laborit, le propriétaire
Malle worked with novelist Patrick Modiano to write the screenplay (Modiano won the 2014 Nobel Prize for Literature). Originally, they entitled the script Le faucon ("The Falcon") and intended to set it in present-day Mexico. However, Malle was not allowed to shoot in Mexico (nor in Chile), so he rewrote the script, giving it a wartime French setting. The script was retitled Le milicien.
Vincent Canby, film critic for The New York Times, gave it a positive review. He wrote, "Lacombe, Lucien is easily Mr. Malle's most ambitious, most provocative film, and if it is not as immediately affecting as The Fire Within or even the comic Murmur of the Heart, it's because—to make his point—he has centered it on a character who must remain forever mysterious, forever beyond our sympathy."
Pauline Kael wrote of her admiration for Malle's expressive camerawork and visual capabilities. Behind the blasé, almost empty visage of Lacombe, Kael sees a world of dialogue: "Malle’s gamble is that the cameras will discover what the artist’s imagination can’t, and, steadily, startlingly, the gamble pays off. Without ever mentioning the subject of innocence and guilt, this extraordinary film, in its calm, dispassionate way, addresses it on a very deep level."
Film critic Dan Schneider liked the film, especially Louis Malle's casting of new actor Pierre Blaise. Schneider wrote, "Every so often a director makes an inspiring casting choice to not hire a real actor for a role, but go with an unknown, an amateur. Perhaps the best example of this was in Vittorio De Sica's 1952 film Umberto D ... Yet, not that far behind has to be Louis Malle's decision to cast the lead character for his 1974 film, Lacombe, Lucien with an amateur named Pierre Blaise. No actor would likely be able to capture the natural ferality that Blaise brings to the role of a none-too-bright French farm boy who unwittingly, at first, becomes an accomplice and collaborator with the Gestapo in the final months of Vichy France, in late 1944."
Film critic Wheeler Winston Dixon discussed why the film was controversial: "Louis Malle's drama Lacombe, Lucien is one of the most effective films about the capitulation of France to the Nazis during World War II, and one of the most controversial .... Louis Malle's film was daring for its time for suggesting that not every member of the French public was a member of the Resistance; that indeed, many were willing accomplices to the Vichy government, and the sting of the film remains to this day."
WinsU.S. National Board of Review: NBR Award, Best Supporting Actor, Holger Löwenadler; 1974.
British Academy of Film and Television Arts: BAFTA Film Award, Best Film; UN Award; 1975.
French Syndicate of Cinema Critics: Critics Award, Best Film, Louis Malle; 1975.
National Society of Film Critics Awards, USA: NSFC Award, Best Supporting Actor, Holger Löwenadler; 1975.
NominationsU.S. National Board of Review: Best Foreign Language Film; 1974,
Academy Awards: Oscar, Best Foreign Language Film, France; 1975.
British Academy of Film and Television Arts: BAFTA Film Award, Best Direction, Louis Malle; Best Screenplay, Louis Malle and Patrick Modiano; 1975.
Golden Globes: Golden Globe, Best Foreign Film, France; 1975.