Au revoir les enfants (1987)

One of Malle’s finest works, this restrained drama builds up slowly, only to leave you emotionally shattered by the end of it. 

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Dir. Louis Malle
1987 | France | Drama/War | 105 mins | 1.66:1 | French & various other languages
PG (passed clean) for some thematic material

Cast: Gaspard Manesse, Raphael Fejto, Francine Racette
Plot: A French boarding school run by priests seems to be a haven from WWII until a new student arrives. He becomes the roommate of the top student in his class. Rivals at first, the roommates form a bond and share a secret.
Awards: Won Golden Lion, OCIC Award, Special Golden Ciak, Sergio Trasatti Award & UNICEF Award (Venice).  Nom. for 2 Oscars – Best Foreign Language Film & Best Original Screenplay.
Source: Nouvelle Editions de Films

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Moderate
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse

Viewed: Criterion Blu-ray
First Published: 7 Oct 2012
Spoilers: Mild

This film is special.  Very special.  The entire film boils down to a singular moment—an instinctive glance—in the final act. It is a memory that continues to haunt Louis Malle, the writer-director of this powerful film about life in Nazi-occupied France.

Based on events of his traumatic childhood, Au revoir les enfants (translated as ‘Goodbye Children’) is an autobiographical drama about the tragic awakening of a young boy.

That boy is Julian (Gaspard Manesse), who befriends Jean (Raphael Fejto) after the latter is admitted into a Catholic boarding school by a kind priest. After some initial animosity, Julian begins to develop a strong bonding with him, but soon learns to discover that Jean’s last name is fake.

Malle’s handling of the two boys is superb as they give genuine performances that make the film such a joy to watch.  This is despite the grim subject matter that will eventually rear its head in the climax.

“Goodbye, children. I’ll see you soon.”

Much of Au revoir les enfants focuses on the fun times Julian and Jean have in school.  They play a duet on the piano, explore the woods, and watch a silent Chaplin film.  

There are school bullies, and there is the occasional air raid siren warning of potential danger.  Other than that, the school seems like a safe haven, a shield against the seemingly non-existent Nazis.

Malle’s genius is to build his story in this world of false normalcy, such that when the ending comes, it hits you right in the gut, just like it hit the guts of millions after the terrible truth about the Holocaust came out.

The brutality of Au revoir les enfants comes not from its graphic portrayal of physical violence (there is none), but something innately more troubling – the loss of childhood innocence and its psychological toll as a result of one’s discovery of evil, in particular extreme racism and its tragic consequences.

In this regard, Julian becomes more than a character in a film; he becomes a symbol of pain and guilt, representing the millions of children who grew up in a time of oppression and prejudice, who grew up with their own haunting stories, many of which will never make the light of day.  That burden is unspeakably brutal.

Grade: A



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