Au Revoir Les Enfants (1987) Review

This intensely personal film by revered French film director Louis Malle draws upon the directors’ childhood in a Catholic boarding school during the period of French occupation.  It took the director a long time to get to the point where he thought he was able to do justice to this poignant and moving story, and yes it was worth the wait.

The simple story follows a rural French boarding school run by priests which seems to be a haven from World War II until a new student, Jean (Raphael Fetjtö), arrives. He becomes the roommate of a top student, Julien (Gaspard Manesse), in his class. Rivals at first, the roommates form a bond and share a secret.

Malle makes sure to show at some length the boys relatively normal life, at odds with the chaos of war around them. So we see them making fun of their teachers and each-other, in lessons, in prayers, listening to sermons against materialism. Playing sports and getting in scraps in the playground whilst playing rather violent combat games (with the aid of stilts), lusting after the pretty piano teacher (a playful, eye-catching turn from the beautiful young Iréne Jacob of Three Colours Red fame). Getting embarrassed by mums fussing over them in the case of Julien’s glamorous mother (played with lady-like sophistication by Francine Racette), and making sneaky black market deals with the orphaned and resentful kitchen boy Joseph (François Négret).

The rivalry then growing friendship between the two leads, the precocious and aloof Julien and the sensitive and talented pianist Jean, is also something lovingly explored as a normal part of childhood, -albeit between too unusually intelligent boys -who share racy Persian stories, play piano together and who find friendship in their otherness from the other boys. When Julien discovers that Jean Bonnett is actually the Jewish Jean Kippelstein who is being harboured by the school alongside other Jewish boys, this shared secret brings them closer together, and Julien comes to the sober realisation that this school and him are all he’s got for who knows where his parents are, or if they’re dead or alive.

As the film goes on more will come to disrupt the innocent and almost timeless atmosphere of the school with its steady round of Latin, Greek and arithmetic lessons and its paternal teachers. One incident involves the boys getting lost in a rival team game involving finding treasure in the local woods, and being found by German soldiers which ends with them ironically being looked after by them and returned to school,  but which gives us a foreboding that the next encounter with a German soldier might not be so pleasant. And as the film builds to its tragic ending and we see the brutal intrusion of Nazi officers in the school while the teachers stand helpless, we mourn the loss of innocence of these boys and the loss of innocence of a whole nation.

A fitting tribute to all those who sought to save lives while risking their own, as well as the children who lived through these precarious times.

 

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