Movies We Like
Au Revoir Les Enfants
The great director Louis Malle is so often overshadowed by his cultier French New Wave colleagues. His The Lovers and Elevator to the Gallows, both made in ’58, preceded Godard’s Breathless and Truffaut’s The 400 Blows by a year. But while both directors were heavily inspired by him, their film debuts are always much higher ranked by film historians. After Malle’s first two near-classics he had some hits but didn’t start making timeless films until the '70s, with his fearless Murmur of the Heart (still cinema’s best coming-of-age incest flick) and Lacombe, Lucien (about a Nazi-loving French kid). Malle went on to do something none of his peers did; he made several American masterpieces, his quick trilogy from '78-'81 including Pretty Baby, Atlantic City and My Dinner With Andre. They were some of the best films of the era. He also married American actress Candice Bergen (though his woeful follow-up, Crackers, with Sean Penn, is thankfully forgotten). Finally, after a few documentaries, he returned to France for one of his best films, the apparently autobiographical WWII youth drama Au Revoir Les Enfants (“Goodbye, Children").
Malle’s younger self can be seen in the hero of the movie, the twelve-year-old Julien Quentin (Gaspard Manesse). This is the kind of three-dimensional child character that cinema rarely gets right; he’s certainty an equal to François Truffaut’s alter ego Antoine Doinel. He’s cool, he’s kind of a rebel, but he’s also an observer, a reader and a thinker. These are traits that we are never told about, but we are able to see with small gestures. And to make things even more complicated, underneath his confident class clown act he’s also a deeply sensitive mama’s boy. He slowly befriends the new kid at their Catholic boarding school, the shy but obviously very intelligent Jean Bonnet (Raphael Fejto), whom it turns out is actually Jewish (posing as a Protestant). He’s one of three students being hidden by the priests from the occupying Nazis. They develop an interesting bond and the usually selfish Julien comes to empathize with Jean, but like many young people, he still has to overcome his own issues and insecurities before it’s too late.
Also of note: the wonderful actress Irène Jacob shows up briefly, in her film debut, as the school‘s pretty piano teacher. This was just a few years before she would rocket to international stardom, becoming the muse of Polish director Krzysztof Kieślowski in his films The Double Life of Veronique and Red. There is also a crippled kid, who is employed by the school in the kitchen. He is picked on by the students (there is an obvious class difference between them), which turns him into an underworld black market dealer and eventually, a classic informer. If you can’t join...rat them out.
The adventure Malle gives us here is fragmented. Like memories from youth that are often just in pieces, so the narrative is not so much an arc as, say, a straight piece of fiction. At one point Julian asks his older brother about the Jews, “Why do we hate them?” His response is not heroic, he does not learn from it, and it’s not that changing of a moment for the kid. It’s just one small conversation of many over the years. But in the end what is clear is that the grownup Malle is haunted by his youth and the memory of what happened to those Jewish classmates and the priest who protected them. Like John Boorman’s Hope and Glory, J.G. Ballard’s extraordinary book Empire of The Sun (with a very good film version by Steven Spielberg) and to some extent, Federico Fellini’s Amarcord and even Woody Allen’s Radio Days, the memories of childhood in this era can be romanticized and given the movie treatment. But even though the film proves to be totally heartbreaking, Malle never goes for the easy sentiment. He never asks us to identify with or even like the childhood version of himself. And in the simplest of terms, that’s probably what makes the movie and the kid so much more appealing.