Au Revoir Les Enfants

Dir: Louis Malle, 1987. Starring: Gaspard Manesse, Raphael Fejto. Foreign.

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.

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Mar 30, 2017 12:46pm

Murmur of the Heart

Dir: Louis Malle, 1971. Starring: Benoît Ferreux and Lea Massari. Foreign.

Some of Louis Malle’s most daring films capture the bewilderment that comes with entering young adulthood. Features such as Au Revoir Les Enfants and Pretty Baby not only guide the audience through the tender and turbulent times of their leading youth, but also deliver a glimpse of the social environment and conditions in which they live. Murmur of the Heart is, in few words, a nuance of intimacy and perhaps a re-working of the Oedipus complex. It follows Laurent—a fifteen-year-old boy whose aristocratic identity and layered personality result in a constantly altered state of mind and lavish exercises in rebellion. Due to his social standing and education Laurent is not your average fifteen-year old, and thanks to the privileges of a lax society and the perspective of older, rambunctious brothers, he has come to think of himself as a young man. The current leading lady in his life is his mother; a beautiful Italian who, like a girl of a much younger age, is constantly impressed and smitten with Laurent’s charm and innocence. Known to his older brothers and surrounding family as "sensitive" and intellectual, Laurent also shares a certain vulnerability to jazz, theft, and women. All of this is put to a halt, however, when Laurent develops a heart murmur and is sent on vacation with his mother to receive treatment. With plenty of free time and leisurely activities, Laurent and his mother grow even closer than before, ultimately leading to displays of affection that must later become secrets, and yet are still handled, by Malle, with delicacy.

For a first-time feature-length actor, young Benoît Ferreux is full of surprises. Laurent’s character is like a balanced mesh of puppy dog and tyrant, which somehow blends to make an odd and highly entertaining finished product. Portraying the unmasked desire by boys of this age and social class to become men is a refreshing alternative to the rough-edged machismo upbringings we often see presented in film. For Ferreux to be able to grasp that concept early and portray it correctly is in itself a promise of the fruitful career that was to come.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Feb 24, 2010 6:01pm
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