Au Revoir Les Enfants
Based on events from writer-director Louis Malle’s own childhood, Au revoir les enfants is the tragic story of friendship and devastating loss between two boys at a Catholic board-school in Nazi-occupied France. Julien befriends Jean, and the two precocious youths enjoy true camaraderie until Jean’s secret—that he is a Jew being hid by sympathetic priests—is revealed. Subtly and precisely observed, the film is a tale of cowardice and courage and ultimately heartbreaking awakening into adulthood.
The long shadow of Malle’s autobiographical memoir of occupied France continues to fall heavily across subsequent representations of World War II, boarding school, and male adolescence—in fact, it would be difficult to identify a recent film that addresses these concerns and does not, in some substantial way, echo Au Revoir Les Enfants. The straightforward, unsentimental, gutsy Enfants finds its 12-year-old protagonist, Julien Quentin, sheltered from the conflict in a Catholic school. His classmate Jean, a new arrival, becomes first a competitor, then a beloved friend. Jean, however, hides a secret from his classmates and the Gestapo; evenly, subtly, Malle creates an atmosphere of hovering and inescapable danger. It won’t take you more than a few frames to guess Jean’s “secret,” and many of the plot points here are too telescoped. Nevertheless, the plainspoken courage with which Malle tells his story remains wholly engrossing. The cinematography here is masterful and drunk with childlike wonder, alternating claustrophobic, wood-paneled church interiors with vivid, occasionally frightening outdoor vistas. And never is it more affecting than in the chilling scene where Justin gets lost in the woods during a seemingly innocent game of capture-the-treasure; trees and rocks flash by the running boy with an austere, impersonal beauty. Winner of seven Cesars (the French Oscars) in 1987, including Best Picture. It’s in French, with subtitles; but don’t let that scare you away. —Miles Bethany