Au Revoir les Enfants
Louis Malle's minor classic returns to cinemas to haunt a new generation
After making a few films in the States in the late 70s and 80s (including My Dinner with Andre and Atlantic City), Louis Malle returned to his native France to direct this 1987 tale of two Catholic schoolboys living in a French boarding school during the German occupation of WWII. It is a story of obvious and immediate hardship – cuttingly cold temperatures, flavourless food, braying and bullying – played out against a backdrop of constant threat for Jean Bonnet (Raphaël Fejtö), the boy the central character Julien Quentin (Gaspard Manesse) befriends. Bonnet is an assumed name: he is, along with a couple of other kids, a Jewish boy protected by the school’s headteacher.
An autobiographical account of the director’s own school years, Malle was happy with the favourable reviews, but a little irritated that the film was seen narrowly as an account of personal friendship. There is an aloofness to this burgeoning alliance, with Julien the bed-wetter trying to keep a cool façade, and Jean’s protectiveness fundamental to his ongoing survival. Echoing earlier Malle films like Murmur of the Heart (in Julien’s attachment to his beautiful mother) and Lacombe, Lucien (in its exploration of a compromised France), Malle wants to show there is a lot going on around the central dynamic: the French collaborationists are often more brutal than the German soldiers, the school can be heroic when protecting Jews but offhand when dealing with a bit of black-marketeering in its kitchen.
There are better, more fluid and cinematic Malle films than Au Revoir les Enfants (Les Amants for instance, or Le Feu Follet) but this is a minor classic – suitably moving yet discreet. The emotion lies in Malle’s gentleness; it’s evident in his quiet sensibility and use of music (Schubert and Saint-Saëns), not in reaction-shot manipulation and a cued score. It was a story that, 'kept haunting me all these years,' Malle said, and it’s likely to haunt the viewer a little also.
Selected reissue from Fri 30 Jan.