Published September 1, 1999
Lucie Aubrac by Claude Berri (the great director of Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring), is another illustration of the use of cliché in great movie-making. Based on the true life events recorded in the memoir, Ils partiront dans l’ivresse by Lucie Aubrac herself, this film hits us over the head with its use of cliché from the very beginning. This is a reiteration of the classic blowing-up-the-train sequence, familiar from a hundred movies about the anti-Nazi resistance, in France and elsewhere. All the traditional elements are there, from the intercutting of shots of the armored and guarded train and the nervous resistance fighters planting their explosive on the tracks to the leather jackets on the latter. Will that familiar plunger be pushed at the right moment and the Boche train be blown to kingdom come? There is never a moment’s doubt of it when everything else appears to be so much by-the-book.
Talk about your establishing shots! But why does Berri have to shout so loud that THESE ARE RESISTANCE FIGHTERS? I think he is trying to point us to the other cliché that is at the heart of this picture, that of the happy marriage between one of the French Partisans, Raymond Samuel (Daniel Auteuil) and the eponymous Lucie (Carole Bouquet). When Tolstoy said that all happy families are alike while every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, he was directing our attention to the same cliché, which is that happiness is boring—to outsiders anyway. When people get married they expect to be happy, so where is the interest in finding that, sometimes, they actually are happy?
And yet, in order for movies to be made and the possibility of romance to survive, we must also believe in the possibility of that happiness. It takes a filmmaker of rare skill to present it to us in a palatable form, but it is a necessary job. And I think Berri pulls it off. Raymond and Lucie’s closeness, cemented by their small son BooBoo, is stressed again and again, and is all the more poignant for being constantly under threat. Shortly after Lucie finds that she is pregnant with a second child (“It’s a terrible thing to say, but I can’t help being happy,”says Raymond), her husband is arrested, and the pregnancy is used as the basis of a cunning ruse by which it is intended for the Resistance to spring him from prison, where he lies under the Nazi sentence of death.
Just in case the plan fails, Raymond entrusts his wedding ring with some of the intimate secrets that can only be known to Lucie and himself, including their solemn vow always to spend the anniversary of their first lovemaking, May 14 together, to a cellmate about to be released. This is a publisher and book shop owner, who is to get in touch with Lucie and establish his bona fides with the information, so as to deliver a final message from husband to wife. This, when it is delivered in the back room of the book shop, is almost unbearably moving and impossible to hear, I think, while holding fast to our postwar cynicism about love and marriage. It takes a brave man to do what Raymond does, but it also takes a brave man to defy the chances of sounding hopelessly corny the way that Berri does.
He accomplishes it in part at least by generalizing the cliché. Not only do we see marital love and fidelity, but there is also filial love (between Raymond and his Jewish parents, arrested by the Nazis) of an uncomplicated kind, friendship and loyalty (and possibility disloyalty) among members of the Resistance, patriotism and, of course, the epic battle between good and evil. The evil is as luridly clichéic as the good. Here we have Nazis straight out of those old-fashioned men’s magazines where they were so often associated with forbidden sex. Klaus Barbie, as he interrogates Raymond, strokes the thigh of his secretary, the Teutonic goddess, Helga, as he beats Raymond bloody with a riding crop. “You vill talk!” he says—or at least its French equivalent.
The result is that we have the sense of listening to a story made up entirely of archetypes, like some ancient epic poem, and so we do not have the same expectations as we would have over a more self-consciously realistic picture. This is a movie about the things we continue to believe in even when we pretend we don’t believe in them. And nowhere do we not believe in them more than in what is becoming the far more typical cliché of our times, the cynical anti-romance like Random Hearts or Love Stinks or American Beauty or Double Jeopardy or The Astronaut’s Wife. After a steady diet of that kind of cheap sophistication, we badly need the kind of corniness on offer in Lucie Aubrac.