Reviewed by Alex Andriesse
It’s easy to be cynical about Patrick Modiano’s recent explosion into English. Since winning the 2014 Nobel Prize in Literature, Modiano has rocketed overnight from relative obscurity to anglophone-literary-world fame. Before the award was announced, fewer than a dozen of his thirty-odd books had been published in English. In the roughly eighteen months since, at least fourteen new translations have appeared. He has been hailed as “the Proust of the Occupation” and as one of France’s “leading novelists”—a phrase that makes me think of Auden grumbling about Yeats: “art, thank goodness, is not a horse race.” Award winners, in the success-oriented age of social media, seem to be taken more seriously than ever. But Modiano is obviously much more than a flavor-of-the-week. He is a complex writer with a graceful, lyrical style; an author of novels, novellas, memoirs, songs (including one recorded by Françoise Hardy), and a screenwriter who worked with Louis Malle on one of the director’s most memorable movies: Lacombe Lucien.
In 1973-74, when he and Modiano were working on the movie, Malle was in his early forties. He’d directed eight feature films, including Murmur of the Heart, Elevator to the Gallows, and Zazie in the Metro (an adaptation of Raymond Queneau’s impossible-to-adapt book of that name). Patrick Modiano was not yet thirty, but had already published three novels, La Place de l’étoile, The Night Watch, and Ring Roads, to great acclaim. The two creators shared an enthusiasm for near-anarchic storytelling of a kind influenced by Queneau (Modiano’s former geometry tutor and one of the first people to encourage his writing) as well as other pioneers of OuLiPo, the Nouveau Roman, and the cinematic Nouvelle Vague.
But, perhaps more importantly, when you consider Lacombe Lucien’s subject matter, both Malle and Modiano were haunted by the years of the Nazi Occupation, when everyday life in France had become a moral battlefield on which the rules of conduct in place before the war (or in the world after) did not apply. Modiano, born in 1945, regards himself as a product of those years, and returns to them in book after book, as if searching out the ambient causes of his own existence. Malle, born in 1932, was a child during the war, but felt himself implicated nevertheless in the complicated moral life of the times, as anyone will know who has seen his autobiographical film, Au revoir les enfants (1987).
There’s little doubt that Lacombe Lucien is one of Malle’s masterpieces, and one of the finest movies ever made about the grim years of the Occupation. Yet why reprint this translation, done in 1975 by Sabine Destrée, of Malle and Modiano’s screenplay now? I suppose that, thanks to the Nobel, all of Modiano’s work is destined to be translated or reprinted—and that’s far from a bad thing. There’s a declarative elegance to the screenplay, as can be heard in the following passage, which juxtaposes pastoral beauty with military violence:
Stretched out in the grass, France is reading a book. Her grandmother is playing her eternal game of solitaire at a nearby table. Beside her, Lucien is cleaning his submachine gun, whose parts he puts on the table as he finishes cleaning them. (111)
But Lacombe Lucien is by and large just an ordinary screenplay. It reads as a text that served as inspiration for the director, the actors, the set designers, and everybody else who brought the film to life. If there were an introduction included in this volume about the making of the film, or about Malle and Modiano’s relationship, I might have more to say in praise of the book itself. But this is a reprint of a respectable translation, plain and simple. For cinéastes, screenwriters, and Modiano completists, Lacombe Lucien: The Screenplay will be worth the price of the ticket. For the rest of us, the movie should be more than enough.
When Lacombe Lucien begins, the title character is a seventeen-year-old farm boy living in southwestern France near the Spanish border, working as a janitor at a nursing home in a small provincial town. His father, a Resistance fighter, is a prisoner of war, and his mother has taken up with the owner of the farm where she and Lucien live. When Lucien attempts to join the Resistance, he is turned down by the local schoolmaster in charge of recruitment. “[Y]ou’re too young,” he’s told: “And besides, we have as many people as we need” (10).
One night not long after, the dejected Lucien goes into town after curfew and is caught peeping through the windows of the Grotto Hotel. He’s taken into the hotel, which serves as the headquarters of a group of French Nazi collaborators, and within minutes has informed on the schoolteacher who turned him away. In the days that follow, Lucien joins the German police and becomes a fixture at the Grotto. One of the collaborators living there, named Jean-Bernard de Voisins (“a good-looking young man with all the affectations of a dandy,” as Malle and Modiano describe him), takes Lucien under his wing. He even arranges for him to be fitted for his first suit at the apartment of a Parisian tailor named Albert Horn (13).
It’s when Lucien returns to Horn’s apartment a few days later to pick up this suit that the core drama of the movie is set into motion. For Horn is Jewish, and he has come to this little provincial town to hide out with his elderly mother and his teenage daughter, France. The moment Lucien sets eyes on France, he is in love. The Gestapo officer’s infatuation with a Jewish girl (over whose life he has absolute power) makes every scene involving them almost unbearably tense. Everything Lucien wants from France, he gets: he gets her to drink champagne, he gets her to come to a party at the Grotto with him, he gets her into bed. France appears to some degree to be attracted to Lucien, but the circumstances in which they find themselves make her attraction to him beside the point. Whatever France does with Lucien is coerced. Whatever France feels remains unspoken. She, and the rest of the Horn family, exist only at the periphery of Lucien’s vision. And Lucien’s vision determines the vision of the film.
Reading the screenplay, one can’t help but notice how careful Malle and Modiano are to privilege Lucien’s perspective over all others. On occasion, it’s true, the text—and later the camera—gives us glimpses from some other character’s perspective, as when the grandmother peeks in on Lucien getting dressed in France’s dark bedroom after Albert Horn, in a state of rage and despair, has turned himself in to the French Gestapo at the Grotto. But for the most part this is Lucien’s film. He is the hero, or the anti-hero, over whose shoulders we peer.
This is nothing unusual for Malle, who by the time of Lacombe Lucien had already made several movies (The Fire Within, The Thief of Paris, Murmur of the Heart) with anti-heroic protagonists; nor, at the time, was it anything unusual for Modiano, whose first three novels are alive with unpalatable characters: ruthless black-marketeers, anti-Semitic Jews, and Gestapo members of every stripe. The screenplay does mark a turn, however, in Modiano’s way of telling stories, and this may be its greatest significance as a text among his other texts.
In his first three novels (now published together by Bloomsbury as The Occupation Trilogy), Modiano had confronted the world of Nazi-occupied France head on. He had conjured up characters, sent them on sometimes hallucinogenic adventures, and narrated them in vivid prose. With Lacombe Lucien, though, Modiano begins to relinquish this youthful confidence in depicting the past. He begins to realize, or begins at least to let the audience realize, how much a story about the past must omit, suppress, or make up. It’s this willingness to acknowledge storytelling’s limitations that makes Modiano’s later books—entertaining as the early, rollicking ones can be—so melancholy and so mesmerizing.
Modiano may not be quite “the Proust of the Occupation.” (It’s a nomination very hard to figure when you consider he was born about a year after the Liberation.) But he is, like Proust, an artist of memory. Or perhaps he might better be described as a detective of memory, tracking down clues about Paris’s shadowy wartime past. His apartment (as can be seen in Entretiens avec Patrick Modiano) is crammed not only with books but, like an old-school private eye’s, with crumbling municipal directories, maps, and civic documents of all sorts. In life as in literature, Modiano has made himself the proprietor of his own private archive of the Occupation.
Modiano’s obsession with the Occupation is, like most obsessions, personal. His father, Alberto Modiano, of Italian Jewish origin, spent the war years dodging the Gestapo and scraping by as a black marketeer, an occupation which—ironically and terrifyingly enough—often involved collaborating with Nazis. At some point during these years, Alberto met Modiano’s mother, the Dutch actress Louisa Colpijn. Neither of them was what could be described as a loving parent. They frequently abandoned Modiano and his brother (who died at the age of nine) to the care of others, or left them under no care at all. “She was a pretty girl with an arid heart,” Modiano writes of his mother in his memoir Pedigree, translated by Mark Polizzotti (2004). Once, he tells us by way of example, a man to whom she was engaged (years before she’d met Modiano’s father) gave her a chow-chow:
but she didn’t take care of it and left it with various people, as she would later do with me. The chow-chow killed itself by leaping from a window. The dog appears in two or three photos, and I have to admit that he touches me deeply and that I feel a great kinship with him. (Pedigree, 3)
Modiano feels a great kinship with all the lost and cast-off creatures of history. He collects the documents that record their passing: the missing person notice and deportation order for Dora Bruder included in the book of that name, or all the addresses and dates from directories and certificates which give shape to his memoirs, Pedigree and Livret de famille (1977).
In collecting these documents, Modiano opens a door into the past. He lives in it, trying to understand its atmosphere and its particular terror. But though Modiano investigates the past’s mysteries, he never pretends to solve them. As he writes at the end of Dora Bruder (translated by Joanna Kilmartin as The Search Warrant):
I shall never know how she spent her days, where she hid, in whose company she passed the winter months of her first escape, or the few weeks of spring when she escaped for the second time. That is her secret. A poor and precious secret which not even the executioners, the decrees, the occupying authorities, the Dépôt, the barracks, the camps, history, time—everything that corrupts and destroys you—have been able to take away from her. (The Search Warrant, 137)
Here, as everywhere in his later work, Modiano is careful not to confuse imagination with knowledge. He may speculate about what it was like for the young Jewish woman, Dora Bruder, deported to Auschwitz in September 1942, or what it was like for his father and mother in German-occupied Paris; but he knows that he cannot know. He can only conjecture.
Lacombe Lucien makes no bones about what its title character’s life is like. From the first frame, we follow him with our eyes: mopping the floors, killing a robin with a slingshot, riding his bicycle along rugged country roads. At first, this involvement in Lucien’s life leads us to sympathize with him. Even if he does seem to take a bit too much pleasure in killing animals, he is after all just a kid, a country boy, perhaps a bit immature. But as the movie progresses, it becomes hard to tell whether Lucien is an ordinary young man caught up in extraordinary circumstances, or whether he is self-interest incarnate or a devil in disguise. He informs on a local schoolteacher, bullies a Gaullist’s son, and psychologically tortures the Horns in their dwelling quarters. Even the few charitable actions he performs toward the end of the film (shooting the German Gestapo officer who comes with him to take France and her grandmother to the camps; agreeing to bring France’s grandmother with them when they then flee in a stolen car to the forest) are done for purely selfish reasons. Lucien wants France. And if he doesn’t kill the German officer, France will be sent away. If he doesn’t agree to take her grandmother with them to the country, France won’t come along.
In the last scene, we watch Lucien lounging on his back in the grass, staring up at the sky while France bathes naked in a nearby brook. Then two sentences are successively superimposed over the shot:
Lucien Lacombe was arrested on October 12, 1944.
Tried by a military court of the Resistance, he was sentenced to death and executed. (111)
This epitaph is, perhaps, Modiano’s signature on what is largely Malle’s film. It is, in any case, in keeping with much of Modiano’s post-Lacombe Lucien work. For even as the epitaph informs us of Lucien’s fate, it refuses to let us follow it with our eyes, as we have been allowed to follow things so far.
Instead, leading up to these sentences, Malle has concluded the film with a kind of visual tone-poem, mixing images of rural splendor with images of mute rage. He shows us the elderly grandmother peering with wonder at a tiny cicada making its enormous noise. He shows us France’s masklike expression as she raises a rock above Lucien’s prone head, contemplating killing him. He follows France walking among the trees calling for Lucien, who hides from her like a boy from his mother in a high dark bough. In cut after cut, we watch these three people while away their days in a false green paradise that we know is destined to end in tragedy.
Yet there is something still more unsettling about those final sentences. When they come up on the screen, and we sense that the movie is coming to a close, aren’t we waiting for the next set of sentences, letting us know what happened to the Horns? We tell ourselves we don’t care what happened to Lucien. But his fate is the only one that the filmmakers allow us to know.
Lacombe Lucien is a staggering example of narrative sympathy, of the sort that Camus might have had in mind when he wrote that the aim of art is not “to legislate or reign supreme, but rather to understand first of all” (266). The film brings home how disquieting such understanding can be. By showing us the world through Lucien’s eyes, Malle and Modiano remind us how dangerously easy it is to become complicit in terrible things. They make us, as viewers, complicit with Lucien’s blindness toward others. They show us where this blindness can lead. And in the end they abandon us to our own conjectures.
Lacombe Lucien. Dir. Louis Malle. 1974. Perf. Pierre Blaise, Aurore Clément, Holger Löwenadler, Thérèse Giehse, Stéphane Bouy. Criterion Collection, DVD.
Auden, W. H. The Complete Works of W. H. Auden: Prose, 1939–1948. Edited by Edward Mendelson. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002.
Camus, Albert. “Create Dangerously,” Resistance, Rebellion, and Death. Translated by Justin O’Brien. New York: Knopf, 1999.
Malle, Louis and Patrick Modiano. Lacombe Lucien: The Screenplay. Tr. Sabine Destrée. New York: Other Press, 2016.
Modiano, Patrick. The Occupation Trilogy. Translated by Frank Wynne, Patricia Wolf, and Caroline Hillier. London: Bloomsbury, 2015.
—. Pedigree: A Memoir. Translated by Mark Polizzotti. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015.
—. The Search Warrant. Translated by Joanna Kilmartin. London: Harvill Secker, 2000.