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Au Revoir les Enfants

(1987)

Directed by

Louis Malle

 Au revoir les enfants poster

Review by Zach Saltz

 

Louis Malle’s Au Revoir les Enfants (1987) is the retelling of an actual incident in the director’s life.  It is a film of supreme suffering and guilt, a testimony to the deep secrets that lie in us unresolved for the bulk of our lives.  It is a tragedy on two levels -- that an incident of such bleak sadness should ever occur in the first place, and that it should be hidden from the rest of the world, its ferocity eating up our conscience inside.

The film also has moments of such happiness and childhood awe that it’s a wonder how Malle can pull it off -- offering, in stark, simple scenes, a film that perhaps says something deeper about the elocution of life than anything else I’ve ever seen.  By the end of the movie, I could do nothing but stare at the empty screen in front of me.  The movie has an uncanny ability to haunt and reside inside of you for a long time after you’ve seen it, just like it most certainly has for Malle.  It’s unforgettable, and my Exhibit A when I argue to people how the medium of film can often be deeply spiritual.

The year is 1944, and 12-year-old Julien Quentin (Gaspard Manesse) attends a Catholic boarding school in Nazi-occupied France.  The school is run by priests, who are (for perhaps the first time in movie history) not portrayed as treacherous deviants.  They are loving, trustful men who care a great deal about the boys and have genuine compassion for the suffering that is occurring every day as a result of Nazi occupation.  This will prove to be a very important factor in what secret is revealed at the end of the story.

Julien is a lonely, passive child who does not like school very much.  He is a good student, but finds his classmates immature and uninteresting.  One day, a new boy comes to the school.  His name is Jean Bonnet.  At first Julien is reluctant to make friends with the new child -- “Mess with me and you’ll be sorry,” he tells him early on -- and since Jean is more proficient at math and piano, he becomes a natural enemy.  But the two boys soon realize they have more in common than they initially realize, except for Jean’s mysterious past, which remains hidden for most of the movie.  But that does not prohibit their friendship in any discernable way.  They play the piano together, they read the erotic (and unquestionably forbidden) 1001 Nights together, and, in one particularly mesmerizing sequence, they get lost in the forest together.  This fraternal bond is shown in dichotomous contrast to the war-ravaged and violent adult world around them.

But tragically, almost inevitably, something terrible happens.  I will not say exactly in what circumstances it arises, but ultimately, a single, split-second glance given by Julien at the end of the film ends up costing the lives of four innocent people.  The burden cannot, of course, be placed on the boy because he is still an innocent child.  But in that momentary glance, the boy becomes an adult, but not in a way we would ever expect or want for ourselves.  The violent adult world has finally dealt its evil and crooked hand into the idyllic setting of schoolboy life.

Louis Malle was no stranger to controversy, as his films dealt with everything from incest to child prostitution to expatriates in WWII France.  He clearly was aware of this and rather than ignore it, he chose to play tricks on his audience to exploit their darkest expectations.  Malle employs two tricks on the audience in Au Revoir les Enfants, both of which should be familiar to anyone that has seen a few of his earlier films.  The first trick occurs when Julien wakes up in the middle of the night, and looks down his pants in discouragement and shame.  We think this may be the first sign of his puberty, so to speak, but Malle fools us -- rather than a telltale nocturnal emission, it turns out that Julien has wet his bed, like a toddler.  This exemplifies how Julien is still an innocuous child at heart, and, when contrasted with the end of the story, we end up seeing great (and nonetheless tragic) progression.  A very similar sort of trickery was used in the opening scene of Malle’s Pretty Baby (1978) when we are given a black screen with a woman screaming in the background.  We think that they are screams of orgasmic joy, but instead, we are eventually shown a woman going through the process of excruciating childbirth.

The second trick is less technical and more laden within the context of the story.  When Julien’s mother comes for a visit at Easter, she takes her two sons to a nearby restaurant, where they witness a Jewish man being harassed by local authorities.  We assume that these authorities are the Gestapo, but we are dead wrong -- they are French officers exercising inordinate powers far beyond the parameters of acceptable behavior (so far over the line that it takes a German officer to break it up).  This is a clear homage to Malle’s earlier masterwork Lacombe, Lucien (1974) about a French boy who becomes a Nazi in order to exercise extreme power over those less fortunate (a family of Parisian Jews).  Malle is saying that the adult world is a very confusing, confounding place where the only thing you can count on is people being corrupt.

In writing this, I realize now that I’ve alluded quite a bit to the adult world being evil and the child world being altruistic and beautiful, a classical French motif of Rousseauian sensibility.  This is a central concept of so many great French movies about childhood -- Truffaut’s 400 Blows, Clement’s Jeux Interdits, and even Malle’s earlier work (specifically La Souffle au Coeur and Lacombe, Lucien).  The message of American films about childhood is that the growth of a child into the adult world is vital and always shown as positive.  This is not true in French films, which choose instead to accentuate the awkward pains of childhood only getting worse in adulthood (see Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel series).  Au Revoir les Enfants is not about one life, but shows three separate but awfully similar growths -- those of Julian, the protagonist, Louis Malle, the director, and perhaps the nation of France as a whole, from the dark days of World War II.  The question is whether any of these lives have transcended tragic French adult prison sentence of banal sadness; we can only hope that they have.

Rating:

# 41 on Top 100

# 1 of 1987

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