Au Revoir les Enfants (1987)

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Written and Directed by: Louis Malle

Setting: France

In 1944, Julien Quentin (Gaspard Manesse) and his brother François return to their Catholic boarding school in the French countryside.

Julien is an exceptionally gifted student, and the arrival of Jean Bonnet (Raphael Fejtö), who is also clever and bookish as well as an accomplished musician, provokes jealousy. However a friendship evolves, and their bond deepens when Julien learns Jean is hiding a dangerous secret.

This gorgeous film is different from many other World War II movies — throughout most of the film, the war doesn’t take center stage. Most of the film takes place in the realm of childhood: the regimen of boarding school, the roughness and playfulness of childhood, and unexplored corners of the forest. Julien copes with the physical changes of puberty and his intense but changing relationship with his mother. The film hints at complicated family dynamics, but it doesn’t delve very deeply. We see the mix of commonplace everyday life, secrets, and confusion that mingle during adolescence.

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Details of the German occupation are seamlessly woven into the story. We see Nazi soldiers, collaborators, ration stamps, and food traded on the black market. It’s simply become a part of quotidian life. We see a child’s world with World War II bleeding in around the edges. Later in the movie, the realities of the occupation and the holocaust come like a punch to the stomach. Until the final unforgettable moment of the film, Julien doesn’t really grasp what’s been happening around him.

This is a beautiful movie of war seen through the eyes of a child, coming of age, friendship, innocent betrayal, guilt, and regret. I highly recommend it for the rich, flawless storytelling, the gorgeous cinematography, the history, and the portrayal of human experience, which is so real without being sentimentalized or made overly dramatic.

Further Thoughts (Spoilers!):
In the climactic moment of Au Revoir Les Enfants, Luis Malle’s autobiographical film, agents of the German Gestapo come into Julien’s classroom, seeking a Jewish student the priests have been hiding. This student, Jean, is Julien’s best friend, and only Julien knows his secret. In one disastrous moment, Julien glances at Jean, unconsciously betraying him. In his review of this film, Roger Ebert wrote: “Judging by the tears I saw streaming down his (Louis Malle’s) face on the night the film was shown at the Telluride Film Festival, the memory has caused him pain for many years.”

As with young Briony in Atonement, there is some ambiguity — are his actions entirely innocent? Some viewers felt his betrayal was, on some level, deliberate — he acted out of jealousy or malice. I don’t see that. I see a child who has not yet learned to filter all his reactions. The expression on his face at the end when he realizes what he’s done — that agonized look of lost innocence and remorse — says it all.

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