by John Greco
A while back, TCM had a one night festival of five Louis Malle films. It gave me the opportunity to revisit two favorites and catch up with a few that I somehow missed in the past. Louis Malle was a director who never liked to repeat himself. Once he explored a subject, he moved on. His work covered drama, suspense, comedy, documentaries and just about every other potential category. One of the original French New Wave, you never knew what he would do next. Malle never shied away from controversial subjects: French collaboration with the Nazi’s during World War II (Lacombe Lucien), child prostitution (Pretty Baby) and Incest (Murmur of the Heart) were all subject matter. What they all had in common was Malle’s artistry for handling these delicate subjects with taste and sensitivity.
Au Revoir les Enfantes at first seems like a simple coming of age story, however, Malle shows you how life can completely change in one swift moment. The film takes place in 1944, in occupied France. Julien Quentin (Gaspard Manesse) and his older brother Francois come from an upper class family. They are being schooled at a boarding school run by Catholic priests. Despite the war, life is idyllic. Soon after, a new boy arrives, Jean Bonnet (Raphael Fejtö). At first, Julien and Jean have a contentious relationship, but soon become friends. Jean, Julien soon discovers, is Jewish and, along with a few other Jewish boys, are being hidden in the school by the priests from the Nazis. Julien keeps Jean Bonnet’s secret. All is well until one of the servants at the school is caught stealing supplies and selling them on the black market. The young man is fired, but he will seek his revenge.
One day that starts out just like any other, the German Gestapo arrive to investigate rumors that Jews are being hidden at the school. Jean Bonnet, aka Jean Kipplestein, along with a few other boys are taken away. Never to be seen again.
It’s an emotional and devastating ending. Childhood disappeared in a flash. A cruel lesson on the horrors of life is introduced. For Louis Malle, it was a personal film, one of his more autobiographical works. Like in many of his works, Malle focuses on the daily mundane things in the boys’ life: school prayers, classes, exercise and music classes. The drama builds slowly, it almost creeps up on you without notice.
There are some terrifying moments that occur in between. One occurrence happens when the two friends, taking a walk, get lost in the woods. They flag down a jeep for help. Unknowingly, the jeep is filled with German soldiers. Upon realizing who they are, we see Jean’s face fill with fear. The soldiers don’t realize Jean is Jewish. They take the boys back to the school without incident. A second situation happens when Julien takes Jean along for a lunch visit with his parents at a restaurant. During the meal, some French collaborators hassle a long time customer of the restaurant who is identified as Jewish. We learn the restaurant is off limits to Jews. The situation is coming to a head, getting ugly, when surprisingly some German soldiers, also eating at the restaurant a few tables away, throw the collaborators out for disturbing them during their meal.
Au Revoir Les Enfantes shows how life can change in one swift moment. It’s both frightening and heartbreaking. As John Lennon wrote, “life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.”