Lucille, the 544-page graphic novel by French artist/writer/singer Ludovic Debeurme, has recently been translated into English and published by Top Shelf. It arrives with an impressive pedigree: it was released in France in 2006 and won the prestigious René Goscinny Prize, was named one of the 5 ‘essential’ graphic novels of the Angoulême International Comics Festival and has received almost universal acclaim.
The weight of its reputation, and the book itself, bring advance respect. I acknowledged this as I hefted the book, but read it with critical attention.
The story follows two teens living in a small French fishing village: Lucille, an anorexic girl with no self-confidence who lives with her divorced mother, and Arthur, the son of an alcoholic Polish fisherman. Debeurme divides the graphic novel into chapters, and switches between the stories of the two characters until they eventually meet and form a relationship – which isn’t until nearly halfway through the book.
Debeurme introduces us to his characters and their situations in an unhurried, careful fashion. Initially it seems that Lucille is a typical skinny, insecure teen who wants a boyfriend but is embarrassed by her sexual desires. Arthur is presented as a rather unlikable boy who suckers a kid into believing he can commune with Satan, all as a cover for his problems with his drunken father and his own compulsion for counting.
The claire linge, almost-crude, artwork allows for no hiding from the story. There are no panels or speech balloons: just expressive forms and text.
The effect is to uncover the vulnerability of all the characters, not just Lucille and Arthur, but their parents and friends also. The issues behind Lucille’s body dysmorphia are presented with understanding and sympathy. She spends some time in the Beauregard Clinic to address her anorexia, and Lucille observes the dysfunctional relationship between another patient, Maude, and Maude’s daughter. Lucille offers good advice to Maude, which she ignores, but Lucille likewise can’t untangle her complicated relationship with her mother. This mirroring of problems between people and generations lends a resonant complexity to the story lines.
In Arthur Debeurme examines the father-son dynamic: the love, hate and guilt that Arthur feels for his abusive father, Vladimir. Vladimir carries his own burdens however, especially after a terrible accident at sea that involves the father and son. Their story is tragic, especially in the way that Debeurme indicates that patterns of behaviour replicate between generations if nothing is done to interrupt it.
Lucille and Arthur (now called Vladimir) attempt to escape by running away together to Italy, but their insecurities and inexperience mean they are unprepared for the complexities of relationships in the outside world.
In a terrible moment of violence that consumes Vladimir towards the end of the graphic novel, Debeurme depicts him as skeletal with rage: an outward transformation replicating the internal self-loathing that fuels Lucille’s anorexia.
Lucille deserves the accolades and awards. It is easy to be fooled by its apparent simplicity of form and narrative structure, but Debeurme uses it to lay bare the heartaches and wounds that cause people to suffer and make mistakes, even as they reach for love. There is an underlying affection for everyone in the story – an appreciation of the universal struggle people endure in life no matter their circumstances. It lends a kindness to the story that takes the edge off its poignancy.
This is the type of mature and thoughtful work that reminds us that graphic novels can offer an important insight to the predicament of the human condition.