Movie Project #25: Au Revoir Les Enfants [1987]

The 50 Movies Project: 2013 Edition

In what has become an annual tradition, I have decided to embark in a third round of the 50 Movies Project. The premise is simple — I have put together a list of 50 movies that I feel I absolutely must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. With so many films to see, it’s easy to get off track and forget about some of the essentials. This is my way of making sure I watch those that have been on my “must see” list for too long.

Au Revoir Les Enfants [1987]

Au Revoir Les Enfants [1987]
Director: Louis Malle
Writer: Louis Malle
Country: France/West Germany
Genre: Biography/Drama/War
Starring: Gaspard Manesse, Raphael Fejtö, Francine Racette
Running Time: 104 minutes

Reason for inclusion: I had never seen a Louis Malle film.

Accolades: Two Oscar nominations (Best Foreign Language Film, Best Writing), BAFTA Film Award for Best Direction + three other nominations, César Award – Best Film + six other wins, Golden Lion Award at Venice Film Festival

(This review discusses the film’s big “secret”, and thus contains possible spoilers.)

Based on director Louis Malle’s own childhood experiences, Au revoir les enfants is a subtle, tragic tale of friendship set in war-torn 1944 France. Technically, it is a war film, but one that is staggeringly different from most set during this period.

Gaspard Manesse stars as Julien Quentin, an 11-year-old student at a Catholic boarding school in occupied France. After returning from a much-welcomed vacation, Julien and the other kids are introduced to a new student: Jean Bonnet (Raphael Fejto). It doesn’t take long for the other children to make fun of Jean — after all, boys will be boys — and even Julien gets in on the action. Hell, at first Julien downright despises the new kid.

Au Revoir Les Enfants [1987]

It isn’t until Julien learns Jean’s secret that two of them are drawn together. You see, Jean’s real last name isn’t Bonnet — it’s Kippelstein. The boarding school, like many others in France, has been secretly harboring Jews under assumed identities in an attempt to provide them safety from the omnipresent Nazis. This is a huge risk for the school’s headmaster, and close calls with German soldiers (and French fascists) keep everyone on their toes.

Once this secret is revealed to the audience, the film grows in suspense. Nazis are continually in the picture, though surprisingly they aren’t always shown in a negative light. During one scene, Julien and Jean become lost in the woods. They eventually wander into a nearby country road where they see headlights coming in their direction. The two boys are ecstatic — at least until it is clear that these are enemy soldiers. Jean immediately takes off running — a natural impulse, to be sure. The boys are quickly caught, but rather than being tortured or worse, they are given blankets and driven back to the school. It’s rare to see Nazis portrayed positively, especially when the Holocaust is a focal point of the film.

Au Revoir Les Enfants [1987]

Of course, there are plenty of evil Nazis as well, and much of the film feels like it is a matter of when — not if — they will discover the hiding Jews. Through it all, the friendship of Julien and Jean is tested. While it is fun to watch their playful behavior throughout, this makes the seemingly inevitable conlusion even more heartbreaking to watch.

I was most impressed with Au revoir les enfants‘s absolute subtlety. Malle never forces emotions onto his audience, instead opting to just show everything as it happens. Everything feels authentic, almost certainly because Malle himself went through a similar experience as a child. As such, this is a beautiful piece of cinema, a story that will move even the bleakest of hearts.


11 thoughts on “Movie Project #25: Au Revoir Les Enfants [1987]

  1. John says:

    One of my favorite parts of Malle- and you hit it on the head with his subtlety- is that he’s got a documentarian’s eye. He makes non-documentary films but they feel more real and raw because he lets the actors bring it all to life.

    This film along with Lacombe, Lucien really dig into Malle’s psyche and past, and France’s odd relationship with their occupation.

  2. ruth says:

    This is one of those celebrated directors I feel like I’ve missed out on. “It’s rare to see Nazis portrayed positively, especially when the Holocaust is a focal point of the film.” Wow, that is quite unusual. Great review Eric!

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