For my first film on the Around the World in 80 Films event, I decided to watch Louis Malle’s autobiographical Au Revoir Les Enfants, which I have read about but have never have had the chance to watch. I am aware that director Malle based the film on his own experiences as child growing up in Nazi occupation of France during World War II.
During an interview, Louis Malle told The New York Times that he “reinvented the past in the pursuit of a haunting truth.”. And through an alter ego Julien Quentin (played by Gaspard Manesse), Malle tells the story of the end of his childhood in Au Revoir Les Enfants. Louis Malle befriended another student called Helmut Michel, who was actually a Jewish boy hiding from the Gestapo. And Malle only knew the boy for a short few weeks before his Jewish identity was given to Gestapo authorities. According to Malle, it was the moment of watching his new friend taken away by German soldiers that “triggered [him] becoming a filmmaker”.
The film follows schoolboy Jean Quentin, from his departure from his mother at the train station, and his return back to his Catholic boarding school. Here he befriends Jewish refugee, Jean “Bonnet” Kipplestein (played by Raphael Fejtö), who is hiding from Germans after seeking help from priest Pére Jean (Philippe Morier-Genoud). The boys’ friendship begins at odds with Quentin finding Jean a little snobby, but it is their love of books that brings them together.
And after an incident where the boys get lost in the woods, they become even closer. Bonnet slowly reveals his Jewish identity to Quentin, and we discover that Bonnet’s name wasn’t Catholic, his parents never visit during the school year, and he didn’t eat pork paté. After Quentin finds Bonnet’s book inscribed to Jean Kipplestein, he realizes Jean’s Jewish identity.
Au Revoir, deals with the transgression from childhood to maturity. Showing how, as children, we cling on to the comfort of our parents, believing they can keep us sheltered from the world. This is shown by Jean hugging his mother before he departures for school, but when he arrives at his school he soon realises he must grow up quickly.
Malle shows the schoolboys wishing for a simpler time, where they could be children, and the treasure hunt is a wonderful depiction of this desire. But the event sours quickly when Jean and Julien become lost, only to be found by German soldiers. Malle shows us with this powerful sequence that for these boys, they no longer have the luxury of childhood.
However, by portraying the film from a child’s perspective, adult audiences are invited to do as children do, and see people as they truly are, without bias, which offers some form of hope. We can learn from the friendship between these two boys, and put our differences aside, which is a wonderful message to promote now more than ever.
Malle is able to evoke the fear and sadness some children suffer while away from home at a boarding school, as well the loneliness. We hear boys crying at night in their dorm. And at one point Julien reads his mother’s heartfelt letter, where she states how much she misses him, in privacy which is a touching scene. Yet the director never dwells on the sentimental, allowing the actors performances to shine through without resorting to cheap, lazy tricks, such as music cues.
Ultimately, Malle manages to capture a terrifying time in history through the eyes and uncertainty of boys who aren’t as grown-up as they’d like to think, which makes the film very powerful and moving, because we can all agree that no child such witness evil in the world.
This film struck a real chord with me. It deals with the themes of humanity, compassion and empathy, revealing the lengths people will go to defend others. This is especially true in Peré Jean’s character, who risks everything to try to save three Jewish boys as best he can. Throughout the film, his passion to help others is the overarching hope in a story doomed for tragedy. The final scene was incredibly moving, leaving me in floods of tears.
As the students are lined up in the school courtyard, the Gestapo officer denounces the priest’s actions. Saying that French people are weak and undisciplined, belittling them in the most despicable fashion. Meanwhile, as the priest is led away by the officers he turns and calls out to the children, “Au revoir, les enfants!” and they respond: “Au revoir, mon père!”.
As they leave through the gates, Jean glances over towards Julien briefly and he waves in return. It’s a simple adieu, and it feels even more tragic as these two friends never get the departure that they deserve. Which is often the case in life, we never get the chance to say goodbye to those who make the biggest impact on our lives.
The film ends with the voice-over from Julien: “More than 40 years have passed, but I’ll remember every second of that January morning until the day I die.” Which is one of the most heartbreaking lines of dialogue I have ever come across. And knowing that this story is based on a personal story (and there are probably dozens of similar stories), it makes it all the more impactful.
Au Revoir Les Enfants is a film that I can’t recommend enough, and it is now one of my favourite films. If you haven’t seen it, then please check it out, I promise you that it will have a profound effect on you, and it will move you to tears. It is certainly a great first film to begin with on my journey around the world in 80 films.