Louis Malles 1987 masterpiece Au Revoir Les Enfants is a genuinely breathtaking exploration of the end of childhood during war. One that shines with natural and unforced performances that display the innocence of youth in the face of conflict, destruction and hate.
Set in a Catholic boarding school in Nazi-occupied France in 1944, twelve-year-old Julien (Gaspard Manesse) is caught between an ideology of occupation and a community of silent rebellion. Julien struggles to unpick the feelings and thoughts of the adults surrounding him as he quietly watches the conflict unfold from a position of relative safety. But when a new boy enrols at the school, Jean (Raphaël Fejtö), Julien finds a new friend who is just as artistic and curious as him. While quiet and reserved, Jean allows Julian to escape his confusion. However, as their friendship grows, Julian also finds himself perplexed by Jean’s protection in the hands of the school’s headmaster. His young mind not grasping that Jean’s enrollment at the school hides a secret that, if uncovered, could lead to disaster for Jean and the teachers protecting him.
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Au Revoir Les Enfants is partly based on Malle’s own childhood experience, and this relationship to the director’s memories and emotions permeates every frame. Malle’s film is an ode to lost innocence that transcends the typical themes of the war movie. Here he delicately dissects the complex relationship between religion, community, collaboration and rebellion in occupied France through the eyes of two pre-teen boys. The result is a beautiful yet heartwrenching journey into the horror of occupation and the silence of revolution. Malle harnesses the deep feelings and emotions of children on the verge of adolescence while dovetailing these with the harsh realities of forced oppression. This, in turn, creates a film that plays with the confusion, conflicted beliefs and emotions of adolescence in the face of political persecution and genocide.
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Timeless in its beauty and emotional power, Malle’s Au Revoir Les Enfants is undoubtedly one of the most powerful Holocaust dramas ever made. Here we see the comforting cloak of childhood innocence lifted as the horror of the Holocaust invades a sleepy yet divided French town. But even more powerful is Malle’s exploration of the shattered innocence of a naive yet curious young boy as the reality of war consumes him.
Director: Louis Malle