Spine #330: Au revoir les enfants [1987], Dir. Louis Malle

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“Are there wolves in these woods?”

Au revoir les enfants unfolds its true story gradually. Writer/director Louis Malle — in semi-autobiographical mode — begins with a series of vignettes about young boys at a boarding school in 1940s France. In the beginning, at least, their life at the school is idyllic: Julien Quentin (the boy on the right in the picture above), our director’s analogue, lives as most boys his age do. He trades the kitchen helper, Joseph, a jar of jam for some rare stamps (Joseph, it becomes clear, is the school’s supplier for all kinds of lightly illicit materials). His friends tease him, and he teases his friends. They gawk at pornographic magazines. Julien’s brother lends him a copy of Arabian Nights, promising “It’ll give you a hard-on.” In general, no one thinks very deeply, even about the world war going on outside their walls.

Early on, a new boy comes to school. His name is Jean Bonnet, and he is initially quiet, and of course picked on by the others, who see an easy target. As time goes on, he begins to fit in more and more. Julien develops a light rivalry with the other boy, who is better at piano and thus attracts the attentions of the beautiful piano instructor.

Malle’s deliberate pacing allows the characters to breathe, and even in this short movie — it’s less than two hours long — many of the boys at the school acquire a specificity and dimension that can only have come from Malle’s own experiences. The boys all evidence behavior that many of us probably remember from our own youth: the desperate, yearning desire to fit in; the nascent understanding of our own sexuality; the petty disputes that seem to matter more than life itself.

Julien is forced to reconcile these ordinary trials of adolescence with something much darker and much deeper, something that drags him out of childhood innocence and into a different place — not adulthood, not quite, but closer to it, perhaps, than a boy his age often is.

Jean Bonnet is Jewish, and if he is found by the Germans he will likely be killed.

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My favorite sequence of the film comes at a little past the halfway point. The boys are engaging in a game of “find the treasure” — someone has marked on stones a kind of map to a buried treasure, and the boys are in teams, trying to find it. Julien and Jean have by this point become closer friends, and are walking side by side. “I’m the only one in this school,” Julien says, “that thinks about death. It’s incredible!” It’s hugely solipsistic, obviously, and — as we come to realize — patently untrue. For Julien, death is only theoretical. His rich family is largely insulated from crisis, and he — like the other boys — does not take the threat of air raid sirens particularly seriously. Julien may think about death, but it is only in the broadest possible terms.

Jean, meanwhile, knows all about death. His parents are missing — likely dead. Every moment of his life is spent looking over his shoulder. The other boys don’t know; in fact, it’s vital that no one knows, because the authoritative but compassionate Père Jean (principal of the school) has brought him in illegally. Père Jean alludes to his motivation for this at a meeting between parents, sons, and clergy:

Père Jean: I don’t mean to shock you but only remind you that charity is a Christian’s first duty. St. Paul tells us in today’s Epistle, “Brothers, be not wise in your own conceits. Do not repay any man evil for evil. If thine enemy hunger, feed him. If he thirst, give him drink.” Let us pray for the hungry, for those who suffer, for the persecuted. Let us pray for the victims and for their executioners as well.

Father Jean’s reaction to the violence of the war is to show compassion for those less fortunate, and to take in and protect young people who might otherwise be killed. This is a humane response, and in fact it is, Malle seems to suggest, one potential ending for the path he sets Julien on.

Of course, in the beginning Julien deals with Jean’s secret the same way he deals with death: abstractly. At first, he has no real understanding of what it might mean to be Jewish in that place and time. He even asks his brother:

Julien: François, what’s a yid?
François: A Jew.
Julien: I know, but what exactly is a Jew?
François: Someone who doesn’t eat pork.
Julien: Are you kidding me?
François: Not at all.
Julien: What have people got against them?
François: The fact they’re smarter than us, and they crucified Jesus.
Julien: That’s not true. It was the Romans. Is that why they have to wear yellow stars?

For Julien, it’s a game. And so when he and Jean get lost in the woods, it makes sense that it’s Jean who asks: Are there wolves in these woods? Jean is afraid of dying because he knows it’s an imminent possibility. And he’s especially afraid of German soldiers. Later in this sequence, Jean and Julien — who have been lost all day, and now wander through the forest at night — stumble onto a road, and flag down a passing car. Except it’s filled with Germans. Julien gets on the ground, complying.

Jean runs.

They’re taken back, and these German soldiers, at least, appear not to be so monstrous — no harm comes to either boy. But it’s a stark reminder, for us and for Julien, that what is abstract for some is very, very real for others. And it is one step in the long path that Julien takes from a child unconcerned with the lives of others, to something approaching an adult, aware that other lives are as complex, as important as his own.

It is not the last step, of course. The film goes on. You can imagine how it ends.

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“More than forty years have passed, but I’ll remember every second of that January morning until the day I die.”

Overall, Au revoir les enfants is a great film about that precarious moment between adolescence and adulthood, and the small moments that add up to a growing sense of how our actions affect others. Louis Malle’s style is unpretentious, even simple, but this is effective in getting across the simplicity of life before adulthood — and makes the loss of innocence all the more potent. The performances are similarly unaffected, making the film seem not just authentic but relatable. And the ending, of course, is devastating. Highly recommended.

**Note: I watched this one on Hulu, so can’t speak to the Blu Ray packaging or extras on the disc.

NEXT WEEK: Spine #397: Ivan’s Childhood [1962], Dir. Andrei Tarkovsky

Since I breezed through two movies already, I’ll add another one to my list for this month’s theme:

  • My Life as a Dog [1985], Dir. Lasse Hallström — Sweden
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