Lights, Camera, Conversation… “Hell on screen”

Posted on October 24, 2014


Thoughts on the violence in ‘12 Years a Slave’ versus ‘Lacombe Lucien,’ which was co-written by this year’s winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature.

I wanted to write about Louis Malle’s Lacombe Lucien when I saw 12 Years a Slave. The brutality depicted in the latter film bothered me, and it took me back to the question I keep asking whenever I see sex and violence on screen: How much is necessary? If the intent is to inform the audience that a couple has had sex, isn’t it enough to show, say, the couple kissing and then shutting the door and then cutting to them in bed afterwards? What purpose (other than pornography) do shots of the actual act serve? So too with violence. When is it enough to merely suggest violence and when does it become necessary to show whips landing on naked backs with flesh peeling off, as in 12 Years a Slave?

Sometimes, a filmmaker wants us to feel what the slaves felt, and one way of feeling is to flinch on seeing that whip land on that naked back and tear off that flesh – this may be nothing when compared to the flinching of the slave undergoing this torture, but at least we’re left with a physical feeling, 0.01 per cent of what that slave must have felt. (Steve McQueen, the director of 12 Years a Slave, had this to say about his methods: “I love the idea of just being in real time. Being present. Being there. That was the key for me… I wanted the audience to be there. And if you put a cut in there, then it would be [like] taking the air out of a pressure cooker. It was about keeping that tension going…”)

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But what bothers me is this: Is it a lesser skill to evoke a reaction in a viewer by showing him things that are guaranteed to disturb him? And if you do this, aren’t you really making a horror movie, which is the only kind of movie that seeks reactions by goosing the viewer? And will a really “evolved” and “sophisticated” filmmaker be more – what’s that word again? – subtle in going about this? These are bigger questions, but when I saw 12 Years a Slave, I was reminded of how relatively “non-violent” Lacombe Lucien is, despite covering a period of similar hellishness (the plight of black slaves under their white masters in 12 Years a Slave; the plight of Jews under the Nazis in Lacombe Lucien).

Lacombe Lucien­, in many ways, is the anti-12 Years a Slave – the physical is replaced by the psychological, the explicit by the implicit – and the reason I’m writing about this film now, the reason I’m remembering it now, is that its co-screenwriter Patrick Modiano won this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature. (This seems to be quite the year for cinematic-literary couplings. The just-announced winner of the Booker Prize, Richard Flanagan, co-wrote Baz Luhrmann’s Australia, and directed the film version of his novel The Sound of One Hand Clapping.) A quick Wiki roundup about Modiano: born in a commune in the western suburbs of Paris… parents met in occupied Paris during World War II… father Jewish, refused to wear the star and did not turn himself in when Parisian Jews were rounded up for deportation to Nazi concentration camps… Modiano spent the war doing business on the black market and hanging around with the Gestapo…

With this background, it’s easy to understand why he was sought out by Malle to co-write Lacombe Lucien­, the story of a French youth named Lucien Lacombe who joins the German police during World War II and falls in love with a Jewish girl, who’s rather pointedly named France. This is another similarity with 12 Years a Slave; there, a plantation owner couldn’t help being attracted to one of his slaves. At one level, it’s not fair – or even very useful – comparing the two films. 12 Years a Slave is a more commercial, more Hollywoody kind of film – it’s more direct. Lacombe Lucien­ is made with a distinctly European sensibility – it’s classic art-house fare. 12 Years a Slave, though the story of one man, the slave referred to in the title, is also a chronicle of the times – it’s a more sprawling narrative. Lacombe Lucien­ is more intimate. Its actions are more confined.

But the primary point of interest is that both films depict exceedingly violent times in completely different ways. The violence in 12 Years a Slave is in your face, while Lacombe Lucien­ depicts violent acts without making a centre-stage spectacle out of them. When German sympathisers are killed, we see their corpses but not the actual killing. The whiplashes are more metaphorical, as in the scene where Lucien takes France to a party at the Gestapo headquarters and she’s called a “filthy Jewess.” (France later sobs, “I’m fed up of being Jewish.”) And yet, that’s enough to make us feel, even if we don’t flinch. When Lucien’s mother comes to visit him, she shows him what her boss gave her, a miniature coffin with Lucien’s name on it. Again, we feel for Lucien because he’s just a baby-faced boy who happens to have aligned himself with the wrong people, and at the same time, we hate him because he’s with those people. Perhaps the most violent shot in Lacombe Lucien­ is the one at the end. Over an idyllic image of the protagonist lying on the grass, staring at the sky, we get these lines: “Lucien Lacombe was arrested on October 12, 1944.  Tried by a Resistance military court, he was sentenced to death and shot.” Visuals and words have rarely been in greater conflict.

Lights, Camera, Conversation… is a weekly dose of cud-chewing over what Satyajit Ray called Our Films Their Films. An edited version of this piece can be found here. Copyright ©2014 The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.