Criterion // 1987 // 101 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // March 28th, 2006
"I'm the only one in this school who thinks about death. It's incredible." -- Julien Quentin
Louis Malle made Au Revoir les Enfants after his initial excursion into Hollywood filmmaking fizzled. Impressive outings like Pretty Baby, Atlantic City, and the picture that came to define art film stasis, My Dinner with Andre, dissolved into back-to-back duds: Crackers starring Donald Sutherland and Sean Penn, and the Vietnam vet retread, Alamo Bay. Malle's desire for mainstream Hollywood success, it seemed, had finally drained him of creative spark. His confidence shattered, the director returned to the familiar territory of his own childhood for inspiration and came away with his masterpiece.
In January of 1944, Julien Quentin (Gaspard Manesse, Erreur de Jeunesse) and his older brother François (Stanislas Carré de Malberg, A Heart in Winter) return from their winter break in Paris to the boarding school at St. John of the Cross Carmelite Convent, run by Père Jean. The monotonous ritual of school and mass are periodically interrupted by bombing raids that send the students and faculty into shelters. Eventually, Julien begins a tentative friendship with a new student named Jean Bonnet (Raphael Fejtö, writer-director of Osmose). The enigmatic boy proves gifted in the sciences, as well as possessing an acumen in music and writing.
Julien eventually discovers that Bonnet is a Jew named Jean Kippelstein. His mother is missing, and his father is in a concentration camp. When an odd-jobber at the school is fired for selling the boys cigarettes, he betrays Père Jean's harboring of Jews. The Gestapo comes looking for Kippelstein. A furtive glance from Julien gives away Bonnet's true identity, bringing the boys' friendship to a tragic end.
Shortly after Julien Quentin discovers that Jean Bonnet is a Jew, he asks his older brother what a Jew is. "Someone who doesn't eat pork," answers François. It is a child's answer, but one that somehow cuts to the conceptual absurdity of genocide: Do adults truly murder each other over something as inconsequential as race? Nonplussed, Julien asks why the Jews are so hated. "They're smarter than us," François responds, "and they killed Jesus." Bonnet, it turns out, is definitely smarter than Julien -- and more sensitive and world-weary. We recognize this immediately even though the film is told from Julien's perspective, a boy so traumatized by the war and separation from his doting mother that he's become a bed-wetter.
Like Murmur of the Heart, Au Revoir les Enfants is a loosely autobiographical work by Malle. And like the earlier film, it takes the director's own emotional experiences as an adolescent and conflates them into drama. Julien isn't responsible for the Gestapo's capture of Kippelstein -- "They would have found me, anyway," Jean tells him during their last moments together. But Julien's betraying glance is undoubtedly a dramatic manifestation of Malle's own survivor's guilt. The frequency with which the director returns to the subject of World War II in his films is indication of the psychological trauma he experienced as a powerless child in occupied France, faced with the enormous guilt of seeing atrocities like the round-up of Jews.
In terms of narrative structure, Au Revoir les Enfants is a simple film, told from a child's perspective (Lucien is 12 years old). The events depicted are straight-forward, but also keenly observed. Despite the deprivations at the boarding school, the boys find much joy in each other's company. They rough-house on stilts in the cold courtyard outside the school. They swap contraband jellies and candies procured from their doting mothers. They jokingly refer to the brothers who run the school as "monkeys." In one terrific sequence reminiscent of the puppet show in Truffaut's The 400 Blows, the boys watch a Charlie Chaplin short. The camera drinks in their faces as they smile and laugh. It's pure, beautiful naturalism, made poignant by the context of Nazis and war.
The movie's structural simplicity leaves plenty of space for its emotional complexity. And it most certainly is an emotionally potent little flick. Malle's carefully constructed scenes of light-comic naturalism are punctuated by gut-wrenching tragedy that relies not a whit on sentimentality. Of particular note is a sequence in which an old Jewish gentleman, eating alone, is harassed in a restaurant by collaborator thugs. Lucien's mother's defense of the man is a small gesture, but touching. Another scene in which Jean and Lucien are lost in the woods outside the boarding school while playing a game, only to be picked up by patrolling Gestapo, is particularly suspenseful. But the film's finale is, of course, its pièce de résistance, a deeply disheartening moment of defeat and disappointment, both for Julien and for the film's audience. The Gestapo's discovery and arrest of Jean Kippelstein represents Julien's premature loss of childhood innocence. Our hearts break for him.
It is Kippelstein, though, whom we truly morn. As in Lacombe, Lucien, Malle has set the picture in 1944, on the cusp of France's liberation from German occupation. We know, just as the adult Julien who narrates the film's final seconds does (it is Malle's own voice), that had Jean Kippelstein managed to stay hidden for just a few more months, he would have survived the war. We, like Julien (and Malle), keenly feel the needless, tragic loss of the boy's bright wit and kind soul.
Criterion scanned Au Revoir les Enfants' original camera negative and performed extensive digital restoration in order to create the stunning transfer you'll find on this disc. As if that weren't enough, all of their work was supervised by cinematographer Renato Berta. The resulting image is essentially reference quality. Colors are perfectly rendered. Dirt and damage are absent, as are any negative effects from the digital transfer and restoration. The overall look of the 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen image is that of celluloid. There are no bothersome artifacts to remind you that you're looking at a video image.
Au Revoir les Enfants' analogue mono soundtrack has also been digitally restored. It's presented in a single-channel Dolby Digital mix that places all dialogue and ambient sound in a surround system's center speaker. The track is clean and beautiful.
The movie is available both as this budget-line, single-disc release, and as Disc Three of the 3 Films by Louis Malle boxed set. The stand-alone disc offers a limited number of supplements. In addition to the feature itself, the DVD houses a teaser and theatrical trailer. An insert booklet contains two essays. The first, by film critic Philip Kemp, offers excellent analysis of the movie. The second, by historian Francis J. Murphy, discusses the correlations between the film's plot and Louis Malle's childhood experiences during World War II. Both are well-written and provide helpful context for viewing the picture.
Au Revoir les Enfants not only stands at the apex of Louis Malle's oeuvre, it is one of the most gripping coming of age pictures ever made. A potent anti-war film, it is a bona fide classic of French cinema worthy of a place beside the best works of Renoir, Melville, Truffaut, Godard, and the other French masters.
The Criterion Collection's gorgeous presentation of the film makes this a compulsory addition to every cinephile's collection.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.66:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)
Running Time: 101 Minutes
Release Year: 1987
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Original Theatrical Trailer and Teaser
* Essay by Film Critic Philip Kemp
* Essay by Historian Francis J. Murphy