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 displaying the innocence of youth in the face of conflict, destruction and hate.
Set in a Catholic boarding school in Nazi-occupied France during 1944. Twelve-year-old Julien (Gaspard Manesse) is caught between the ideology of an occupying force and a community of silent rebellion versus acceptance. Often struggling to unpick the feelings and thoughts of the adults surrounding him. But when a new boy enrols at the school called Jean (Raphaël Fejtö). Julien finds a friend who is equally artistic and dreamy. A boy who, while quiet and reserved allows Julian to escape the confusion of the world around him. However, as their friendship grows, Julian also finds himself perplexed by the close protection offered to Jean by the school’s headmaster. His young mind not grasping that Jean’s enrolment at the schools hides a secret; one that if uncovered could lead to disaster for the Jean and the teachers protecting him.
Au Revoir Les Enfants is based on Malle’s own childhood experience. And this relationship to the director’s memory and emotion pervades every frame and scene. As the personal memories and the pain attached to his experience spill out on film. Creating an ode to lost innocence that transcends the normal war movie themes. While equally delicately dissecting the complex relationship between religion, community, collaboration and rebellion in an occupied land.
Malle creates a film that is both beautiful and heartwrenching in equal measure. Harnessing the deep feelings and emotions of children on the verge of adolescence. While dovetailing these with the harsh reality of oppression and war. Ultimately creating a film that plays with the confusion, conflicted beliefs and emotion of young adolescence. While surrounding these with a forced social structure of fear, control and acceptance.
Ultimately this is a film that feels timeless in construct and delivery. Its story rising above and beyond the confines of the decade to which it was born. And while Au Revoir Les Enfants is rarely mentioned in the same breath as the ‘Holocaust Drama’. It is in many ways, one of the most powerful and affecting Holocaust-related films ever made. Partly due to its reflection of friendship, belonging and trust stolen through enforced hate and oppression. With the pain and confusion of an adult world of hate seen through the eyes of a boy. Just as the cloak of his childhood innocence is lifted, and reality of the world around him streams in.
Director: Louis Malle