Judge Clark Douglas' own coming-of-age story was considerably less depressing than this one.
A tale of courage, cowardice and tragic awakening.
"Stop acting so pious. There's a war going on, kid."
Facts of the Case
Young Julien Quentin (Gaspard Manesse, Saint Louis Blues) is sent to a Catholic boarding school in Nazi-occupied France. It's there that he meets Jean Bonnet (Raphael Fejto), another new student who is generally disliked by others at the school. The reason? Jean spends a great deal of time focusing on reading, music and his studies, and spends very little time worrying about the trivial activities of other children his age. Julien is intrigued by Jean, and decides to make friends with him. After a while, Julien discovers Jean's secret: his real name is Jean Kibbelstein, and he is a Jewish boy being hidden at the school by the kind Father Jean (Phillippe Morier-Genou, A Christmas Tale). Julien agrees not to say anything, but how much longer can Jean's secret remain safe?
Cinema has provided us with countless coming-of-age stories, along with a great deal of stories about the many variations of horror present in the world throughout WWII. Au Revoir Les Enfants is both, but offers less cheap sentiment than many coming-of-age stories, along with less shameless awards-bait pandering than many WWII-era films.
Indeed, "less" would seem to be the key word when discussing Au Revoir Les Enfants, as director Louis Malle turns in a remarkably spare film largely built on miniscule moments. The larger dramas of both the war (as French citizens worry about the future and debate the specifics of their tensely cordial relationship with the Nazis who have occupied their country) and childhood (as the young boys address such universal issues as puberty, bullying, racism and more) are weaved seamlessly and quietly into the background, as Malle brings a series of little moments to the fore.
This is a particularly personal film for Malle, as it is based on his own childhood experiences. The names and some minor details have been altered for storytelling purposes, but the larger plot details of the film did indeed occur while Malle was attending a Catholic boarding school. Perhaps due to the personal nature of the film, Malle works very hard to ensure that he doesn't fumble the power of the film's closing moments. Those moments are indeed unforgettable, largely due to the cautious work Malle puts into everything which comes before.
He does not attempt a traditional narrative in which Julien and Jean take a predictably-plotted journey of friendship together while continuing to evade the tightening grasp of Nazis attempt to hunt Jean down. Rather, he uses a large selection of carefully-observed slice-of-life moments to immerse us in the atmosphere of the school; to feel the unusual blend of boyish energy, childish cruelty and unifying fear in the air of this place at this time. The conclusion grows naturally out of the story, but not inevitably: there is a suddenness to it which makes it all the more infuriating and heartbreaking.
The film is precisely what the title implies: a farewell to childhood. Not so much for Jean (who has seemingly already put a large part of childhood behind him in his weighty quest to keep his identity a secret) as for Julien, who comes to understand the darkness of the world by simply observing the people around him. One of the film's virtues is the manner in which it captures the less aggressive brand of racism present in France at the time, as citizens debated whether the Nazis were correct in their persecution of the Jews. After learning Jean's true identity, Julian studies his friend carefully, perhaps in an attempt to figure out what those who despise Jews are so afraid of. He asks his older brother what makes Jews so different. "They don't eat pork," his brother quips. "But what is their crime?" Julian demands.
There is no reasonable answer, of course, and Julien's childlike perspective further accentuates the senselessness of bigotry (though it must be noted that this never feels like a cutesy, simplistic storytelling device). The performances in the film are never showy; you never catch any of the cast members "acting." The presence of little-known actors (often with no previous film experience whatsoever) in the roles of the children allows us to better accept their characters right off the bat. There are adults in the film (particularly priests and Nazis), but we only see them when their activities are relevant to the lives of the kids. The priests are firm but kind, while the Nazis are ominously enigmatic.
The 1080p/1.66:1 transfer is excellent, allowing Malle's naturalistic yet attractive visuals to shine. The color palette is quiet muted; often taking on the sort of blues, grays and blacks that tend to dominate prison movies. Detail is superb throughout, and depth is impressive during darker scenes. Flesh tones are warm and natural, though the image has been desaturated just a bit. Audio is strong, but this is a quiet track: dialogue dominates, sound design is minimal and the music is limited to a handful of brief yet significant pieces (generally performed on the piano). There is no hissing or crackling of any sort.
The previous Criterion DVD release offered precious little in the way of special features, but this new hi-def release has plenty of goodies. You get extended interviews with Malle expert Pierre Billard (30 minutes) and Malle's widow Candice Bergen (13 minutes), a 5-minute essay on the character of Joseph created by director Guy Magen, Charlie Chaplin's excellent 25-minute short film The Immigrant (which plays a key role in the film), an hour-long audio Q&A session with Malle from 1988, a teaser trailer, a theatrical trailer and a booklet featuring an essay by Philip Kemp.
Au Revoir Les Enfants is one of the best films of its sort I've seen; an unforgettable cinematic experience which deserves comparison with such devastating pictures as The 400 Blows and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. Criterion's release does the film justice.
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