Au Revoir, Les Enfants: The Criterion Collection
Director Louis Malle's career has been one of astute observation of the human condition, often most pointedly examining childhood and the loss of innocence. Most famous in the U.S. for his notorious 1978 film Pretty Baby, in which the young daughter of a New Orleans prostitute is prematurely thrust into adulthood, Malle's previous pictures had returned again and again to similar themes. In his early comedy Zazie dans le métro (1960), a 12-year-old girl escapes from relatives and explores Paris alone. The protagonist of Murmur of the Heart (1971) is a young teenage boy in 1950s France who, during the course of the film, discovers smoking and drinking, endures a pass from a priest, and loses his virginity to his own mother. Other films, like Lacombe Lucien (1974) and Black Moon (1975), look at social constructs through the eyes of children, using their as-yet-unjaded viewpoints as a tool for commenting on the world's oddities and inequities. Arguably the best of these films is Au Revoir, Les Enfants (1987), a semi-autobiographical remembrance about boys in a Catholic boarding school in Nazi-occupied France, which not only casts a detailed eye on the cruelties and passions of children but uses this setting to also examine how one thoughtless action can bring tragedy and a lifetime of guilt.
12-year-old Julien Quentin (Gaspard Manesse) returns to his school in the country after spending a break with his wealthy parents. It's 1944, and the school is located outside the occupied village of Fountainebleu. He's a boy accustomed to both the privilege of his upbringing and the deprivation of his life at school, where the students never have enough to eat and are warehoused in a massive, austere dormitory. Julien, we discover, is not a popular boy, and he slowly becomes friends with a new student who's even less liked Jean Bonnet (Raphael Fejto), mockingly called "Easter Bonnet" by the other boys. Most of the film details the small things that the friends experience together: taking lessons in a bomb shelter during an air raid, getting lost in the woods after dark, sharing a peek at dirty postcards, and squabbling over petty differences, as they feel both affection and resentment towards each other in what becomes an increasingly complicated relationship. Julien does some snooping after he determines that "Bonnet" isn't Jean's real name, and he discovers that his friend is actually a Jew named Kippelstein, and at the school under the protection of a benevolent priest. When the Gestapo visits the school, Julien unthinkingly betrays his friend and must watch as Jean, the priest, and two other boys are whisked away by the Nazis.
* * *
Louis Malle has said in interviews that Au Revoir, Les Enfants is autobiographical, but only in the loosest sense. He was a schoolboy at Petit College d'Avon, near Fontainebleau, when he was 12. He knew a Jewish boy, but not well, and witnessed his school's principal being arrested for hiding Jews after the principal was betrayed by a kitchen worker who was a Nazi informant. So it's interesting that Malle's film, based on an experience that he claimed haunted him for years, would cast his own alter-ego as the one responsible for the arrest of his classmate particularly since the picture is so finely detailed that it feels as if it's crafted entirely from memory. Julien is an arrogant, spoiled innocent who understands that there's a war going on but not the reasons or the true dangers involved. "What's a Jew?" he asks his brother, who responds that "they don't eat pork." Shocked by this, Julien then asks, "But what is their crime?" His first glimpse at anti-Semitism comes during a visit from his mother, who takes him to a restaurant where French police attempt to eject a Jewish diner. "I have nothing against Jews," his mother airily announces. "Except for that Léon Blum. They can hang him." The first film Malle made in France after a decade of working in England, Italy, and the United States, Au Revoir, Les Enfants is a subtle and stylish work, almost too assured for its own good as well-crafted a memoir as it is, it still feels like a hazy memory that relies on eloquently presented nostalgia rather than visceral punch. Despite being a film about children, the film's message is that of an older, more weary Malle who wants to lecture, albeit gently, on the subject of personal integrity. The school's principal, Father Jean, instructs Julien to be kind to Jean because "the others look up to you," and he uses his sermon on parent's day to talk about Nazi collaborators: "We live in a time of discord and hatred. Lies are all-powerful. Christians kill one another. Those who should guide us, betray us. More than ever we must beware of selfishness and indifference I understand the anger of those who have nothing while the rich feast so arrogantly. I don't mean to shock you, but to remind you that charity is a Christian's first duty." It's a message that was as timely in 1987 as it was in 1944, and one that resonates profoundly today. Malle's film is beautifully photographed and delicately presented, and it offers a singularly profound moment in which one boy learns the consequences of forgetting, even for a flicker of an instant, the importance of charity and integrity.
The Criterion Collection offers Au Revoir, Les Enfants as part of their "3 Films by Louis Malle" set, packaged with Lacombe, Lucien and Murmur of the Heart. The new, high-def digital transfer (offered in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio) is superb, showcasing Malle's muted color palette without sacrificing sharpness or detail. Supervised by director of photography Renato Berta, it's a virtually flawless presentation, made by scanning the original 35mm negative in 2K resolution, digitally color corrected, and then restored to remove scratches, dust, and noise. The dual-layer disc was encoded at the highest possible bit-rate, offering a truly stunning presentation. The remastered Dolby Digital 1.0 audio (in French, with newly translated English subtitles) is equally good, coming through the center channel of a 5.1 system but so clean and clear that it's hardly even noticeable that it's monaural. The disc includes the original theatrical trailer and a booklet containing essays by film critic Philip Kemp by Francis J. Murphy, a historian who specializes in the history of modern France. Keep-case.