Directed by: Louis Malle
Music: Schubert, Saint-Saens
Starring: Gaspard Manesse, Raphaël Fejtö, Philippe Morier-Genoud,
Francine Racette, Stanislas Carré de Malberg, François Négre
A couple of days ago, I was complaining to my husband that my blog had been sadly neglected for the past few months. Posts have been sporadic at best, and I have not even been able to muster up the interest or the energy to watch a film, much less write about it. So in a bid to remedy the situation, I looked through my drafts - many of them have notes even I cannot decipher, and I'm too tired, and too disinclined, to watch the films again that I might know what the heck I meant by 'It is just one of his many excuses.' (Honest confession? I know neither what the excuses are, nor who the 'he' might be referring to...) A few of them are nominally complete, but need pictures - and again, my head is too fuzzy to sit through a film so I can capture the necessary screenshots. Some drafts though, were 'just right' and only needed to be polished, and published.
Along with Les Quatre Cents Coup, Au Revoir Les Enfants is a film that has nestled among my complete drafts for more than a year. Dustedoff wrote a very good review of the former (Which means that my review of Le Quatre Cents Coup had better take another year before it sees the light of day!), and reading it prompted me to dust off (Ha! see what I did there?) my draft of the latter. The third and final part of Louis Malle's trilogy (the other two films are Le Souffle au Cœur and Lacombe Lucien) about growing up amidst the upheaval of war, Au Revoir Les Enfants is a complex tale of friendship and betrayal told with quiet simplicity.
The year is 1943. As the film opens, we see Julien Quentin (Gaspard Manesse) at the railway station. He and his brother François (Stanislas Carré de Malberg) are returning to school after Christmas vacations. His father is away at the factory, and his mother (Francine Racette), fearing for their safety, has sent them away from Paris to the Petit College St.Jean de la Croix, a Carmelite convent in the countryside. Julien is only 12, and is angry and unhappy at having to leave his mother.
That first night, as the boys are settling in, a new boy arrives. He is introduced as 'Jean Bonnet' (Raphaël Fejtö). And the boys, finding a new person to tease, fall on him like a pack of puppies. Julien, however, finds that he has one thing, at least, in common with the newcomer - they both like to read. Bonnet is inclined to be friendly at first, but Julien brushes him off.
The new boy is quiet, secretive and socially awkward. Nothing like Julien, in fact. And while Julien himself does not take part, he is not too unhappy that his classmates pick on Jean. Especially when it seems that the newcomer is an arithmetic genius. And scores over Julien in class essays. And even more so when Julien, having failed a piano lesson with the pretty instructor Mlle. Davenne (a very young, and very pretty Irene Jacob in a cameo) - she suggests that Julien perhaps learn the violin instead - finds that Jean is a far superior pianist and has quite won Mlle. Davenne's heart.
Julien experiences a moment of pure envy. And it certainly does not endear Jean to him.
As time goes by, Julien begins to notice that there is something mysterious about Jean. He doesn't utter the Lord's prayer while the boys are in the air raid shelter, doesn't make the sign of the cross after the bed-time prayers in the dorm (though he kneels down for it), he is not going to undertake Confirmation, the priest passes him by with the wafer as he kneels at mass, his fear when the French militia demand to search the school and Père Jean hides him away... it is all very curious.
So, of course, Julien begins a little investigation of his own. And finds that 'Jean Bonnet' is not really Jean Bonnet, but... Jean Kippelstein. Julien still does not know what to make out of it all, and Jean is not very forthcoming. So Julien does the next best thing - he asks François what a Jew is and what the world has against them...
Julien is still not enlightened. But the next day, the class makes a trip to the forest nearby. It is a treasure hunt, and in a bid to escape from his classmates and find the 'hidden treasure', Julien runs deeper into the forest, and loses his way. Suddenly, the forest seems ominous, darker, more filled with shadows, and when twilight falls, he is extremely afraid. But he is not alone. Jean has also managed to escape his pursuers, and together, they navigate their way back. Only, it is after curfew, and the boys run into a couple of German soldiers. Jean tries to runs away but the boys are caught...
The soldiers, however, drop them safely back to the school. (They even have a sense of humour about being called 'Krauts'.) Their shared experience (and the tall tales after) creates a bond between the two boys, though it is fraught, at first, when Jean realises that Julien knows his secret. Nevertheless, they end up becoming good friends.
It is not a friendship that is destined to last, however. The fear that Jean lives under is one that overshadows everything that has gone before, and everything that comes after. And the denouement that comes from an unexpected quarter, as it does, is all the more startling, and tragic.
Au Revoir Les Enfants takes place in Nazi-occupied France. By 1940, Nazism had triumphantly overrun much of Europe and everywhere, Jews were being hunted and sent to concentration camps. Outside the walls of the school, the world was seething under the yoke of Nazi occupation. Inside, life is 'normal'. Boys tumble down stairs, talk in class, fight at recess, squabble for space in the communal bathrooms, look at naughty postcards, attend mass (the school is Catholic), read novels under covers after lights out, and pour into cellars when the air raid sirens sound. (Of course, the mathematics teacher continues his lesson in the cellar.)
The film also juxtaposes the different background of the two boys very nicely - Julien, born in privilege, and completely unconscious of the political undercurrents except as dinner conversation, and 'Jean', pretending to be someone he is not, living a life of terror where any passing soldier is a threat. In a scene in the forest, Julien tells Jean, "I'm the only one in this school to think about death. It is incredible!" The irony is delicious. (Jean's father is in prison (concentration camp), and he hasn't heard from his mother for three months.) The spectre of death is his perpetual companion.
The boys are a treat to watch (neither Gaspard Manesse nor Raphaël Fejtö had acted before), the awkward friendship leading to real affection, and the last scene when Julien is forced to face that he is somewhat complicit in Jean's fate is extremely touching.
Julien, in fact, is a very complex character. He can be cruel as well as kind, he is verging on adolescence, but he still hasn't left his childhood completely behind. He is our view into the complex world in which he finds himself, and the voice of his conscience is the echo of our own. Julien lives in the moment, and world events are just something that is happening around him. The school and its environs, his daily routine, and his friends are more important. Yet, it is his one action that leads his friend into tragedy. Was it deliberate? No. It is as if Julien had several pieces of a puzzle in his hands and he is not yet sure what they mean - he is just a little boy, for all that he is 12 - until that one moment when the Gestapo are actually in school. Then it hits him squarely in the face, and his glance reflects that knowledge - with unfortunate consequences. Is he guilty? Yes, perhaps. No, perhaps. Jean, however, has no complaints. He has that sense of inevitability. "They would have caught me anyway," he tells Julien as he leaves.
Gaspard Manesse lives his role, imbuing it with such conviction that we celebrate with him, and grieve with him. The last shot of his face, as Jean is led away, and Julien realises the enormity of his actions, is chilling. In that one moment, you realise Julien has lost his childhood forever.
Similarly, Père Jean is human first, priest later. When he attends to Julien at confession, he disarms the boy when he admits that he is also prone to evil thoughts. He also dismisses Julien's stated preference to join the order - 'You do not have the calling", he tells him, "and besides, it is a sorry job."
He is a man who feels strongly about humanism, so strongly that he preaches a very controversial sermon about not giving in to the prevalent hatred. He deliberately disguises the three Jewish students as Catholics and offers them sanctuary. He is also the man who, after firing Joseph, the cook's assistant, for black-marketing, is torn by the inequity of his actions - the boys, all children of wealthy parents, who were equally complicit, get away scot free.
Au Revoir Les Enfants unfolds slowly, gently, often languidly. There are no dramatic swells, just the routine ordinariness of boarding school life. It is as if the world itself is held at bay by the walls of the school. Interspersed are vignettes of school life - the different classes, the different teachers, lessons, friendships, discipline, fights - the only incongruous part are the air raid drills, but even that seems 'normal' in war-torn France. The boys certainly treat it as just another lesson. The friendship between the boys is treated equally matter-of-factly. There is no cloying sentimentality here, just a very real friendship as anyone who has been, or has seen, 12-year-old boys will attest.
Neither does the director dwell on Julien's knowledge of Jean's secret. There is no grand scene staged where Julien lets Jean know that he knows or one where Jean begs Julien not to betray him. It is mentioned - in passing. "Are you ever afraid?" Julien asks Jean once. "All the time," is the reply. The scene is all the more powerful for being so off-hand.
Even the villains are not who you think they are. The German soldiers who are shown in the film are menacing, yes, but they are not monsters. In fact, in one incident, when the French militia are trying to throw out a Jewish man, a regular diner, from a restaurant, it is a sympathetic German officer who provides succour. (Of course, François is quick to point out to his mother that the officer was showing off for her benefit.)
Earlier, it is the Germans who, finding Julien and Jean in the forest, drop them safely back in school, even lending the frozen boys their blankets. The man who betrays the boys is not German, but French; and he does so, not because he hates Jews particularly, but because he feels betrayed himself.
There is also a strong undercurrent of humour in the film - the gentle sort, not the laugh-out-loud moments - both intentional, and ironic. It is there in the interactions between the brothers, between François and his mother, between Jean and Julien.
It is all the more touching because of the backdrop against which this humour plays out. The scene where Charlie Chaplin's The Immigrants is screened in the school, is a case in point. Everyone laughs, until the humour on screen hits a little too close to home.
Director Louis Malle referred to Au Revoir Les Enfants as a reinvention of his past. Autobiographical in parts, it is the most personal, and in his view, the most important, of his films. Young Malle had been at a Roman Catholic school (Petit-Collège d’Avon) near Fontainebleau when three of his Jewish classmates and a Jewish teacher were arrested in a Gestapo raid and sent to Auschwitz where they were executed. The school's gentle headmaster, Père Jacques, was arrested for deliberately harbouring Jews and sent to the concentration camp at Mauthausen where he lived until the liberation. As they were taken away, the children wished their principal goodbye, and he turned back to say 'Au revoir, les enfants...'
While the film parallels Malle's life, the incident that sets the stage for the denouement is of course, not a mirror of his own actions. But it is obvious that the memories were immensely tragic and in conversation with film critic Roger Ebert in later years, Louis Malle confessed tearfully, "This is my story; it has been told at last."
And that perhaps is why the film is so sensitive, so touching... I cannot recommend this highly enough.