This is the story of Jacques, a young car mechanic who dreams of becoming a professional
boxer, and his kind-hearted Jewish friend, Simon. In the 1930s, the two men steal
a car with a powerful engine that can outrun any other road vehicle and embark on a life
of crime - robbing banks and acting as latter day highwaymen. A redoubtable
police inspector, Bruno, is close to bringing the two men to justice, but then World War
II intervenes. Whilst Jacques and Simon end up, quite by chance, supporting the
French Resistance, Bruno consciously decides that his best interests lie in collaborating
with the German police. Their paths are bound to cross...
Le Bon et les méchants, Claude Lelouch's "good guy, bad guy" morality tale
set at the time of the Nazi occupation of his country, is a curiously detached work, yet
one which is subtly etched with irony and humanity. Given Lelouch's own Jewish background,
it is remarkable that he could make such a film in the way that he does. The film's
thesis is that there are no such thing as bad men or good men - to a large extent, our
actions are driven by external events over which we have little control. This is
an extraordinarily generous sentiment but it does expose a certain naivety and, in that
respect, the film feels awkwardly simplistic.
Given the body of historical evidence, there can be no question that bad men exist and
that bad men exploited the Nazi regime for their own purposes, and this is something the
film tends to push to one side, giving a somewhat distorted view of reality. On
the other hand, it is equally true that the majority of people who lived under the Nazi
occupation were hostages to fortune, doing what they could do ensure their own survival
after their government threw in their collective towel. In that respect, this film
gives us a valid comment on the period, making no bones about the fact that human nature
is much more complex than most film makers would have us believe.
The popularity of Lelouch's films - with the cinema-going public if not the critics -
ensured that this particular New Wave director had little difficulty hiring talented actors.
As in many of his films, the cast list of Le Bon et les méchants
like a "Who's Who" of French cinema. Jacques Dutronc and Jacques Villeret head an
impressive cast which includes Brigitte Fossey, Marlène Jobert, Serge Reggiani
and Bruno Cremer. This over-abundance of acting talent is admittedly somewhat gratuitous
but it does help to mask some of the film's technical deficiencies. The sepia photography
is attractive but doesn't really add much to the film - if anything it distances the audience
from the drama and emphasises the impression that this is a sanitised view of history.
Lelouch's predilection for long takes filmed with an erratically meandering camera is
also slightly irritating, particularly when a cut between static shots would have been
Despite its sentimentality and cinematic excesses, Le Bon et les méchants
should be considered one of Claude Lelouch's most worthy films - not because it is a masterpiece
(which it isn't) but because it challenges our notions of good and evil. In so doing,
it offers a more credible portrait of life under the Nazi occupation than many "more serious"
films have dared.
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