Lacombe, Lucien is a daring portrait of a boy on the cusp of manhood, caught up in history. Lucien lives in occupied France in 1944, just before the Americans beat back German forces. A callous, selfish person (in the first scene we see him passionlessly kill a bird with his slingshot simply because he can), he attempts to join the resistance to get out of his unglamorous job at a local hospital. When they refuse him because of his age, Lucien turns to the Gestapo instead.
Malle's exploration of the French psyche under occupation - and, on a larger scale, man's ability to become complicit in evil through basic, common desires - is a specific kind of subversive movie, a kind which the American public rarely gets to see. Lucien is a supremely unlikable character - nowhere in the film do we sympathize with him, relate to him, or come anywhere close to liking him. Even in his single moment of heroism (spoilers), when he shoots the German officer who has come to take his lover and her grandmother away, he does so not for their sake, but for his own. Lucien does not change in the film, and nothing about the way other people relate to him makes us feel any better about his actions or beliefs (or rather, the lack thereof).
Is it possible to make a great movie about a central character that is entirely reprehensible? Every scene in Lacombe, Lucien made my skin crawl, which was precisely what it was intended to do. Yet I'm not sure what I gained from it. Often in Hollywood, a lack of character evolution and an inability to make the audience connect with the protagonist is equated with bad movies. This is one of the main tenets of the core philosophy of mainstream American cinema, which holds that certain elements are required to make a good movie, and if those elements are not present, it is impossible to be successful.
This is, of course, a silly, stupid notion, one that has prevented many movies from reaching their potential as great movies. But watching Lacombe, Lucien certainly places the issue of a sympathetic - or at least relatable - protagonist front and center. It's difficult for me to think of a movie that successfully balanced upon the shoulders of an unlikable protagonist (I'd love to hear suggestions in the comments), and for me Lacombe, Lucien was no different. I think what Malle did here in terms of intellectual investigation is worthy, admirable even. But it makes for a difficult viewing experience, and not one I can say I enjoyed or even necessarily believe was worth it in the end.