Au Revoir Les Enfants

Louis Malle
Release Year:
Louis Malle
Gaspard Manesse, Raphael Fejtö, Francine Racette
BAFTA Awards 1989 Best Direction Louis Malle
Screening Date:
  • 14 Mar 2017
  • Categories:

    Semi autobiographical film set in a prestigious Catholic boys’ boarding school towards the end of WWII. A friendship growing from initial rivalry between two of the boys conceals a dangerous secret.

    Film Notes

    LOUIS MALLE'S 'Au Revoir les Enfants' ('Goodbye, Children') is based on an event that took place during January 1944, when the French writer and director, then 12 years old, was attending a Jesuit boarding school near Fontainebleau. At the end of the Christmas holidays, in the middle of the scholastic year, there appeared at the school three new boys, one of whom became the young Malle's chief competitor for scholastic honors and then, briefly, his best friend. Several weeks later, this boy, as well as the two other newcomers who were also Jewish, was arrested by the Germans and, with the school's headmaster, a priest, disappeared. It has taken Mr. Malle more than 40 years to make 'Au Revoir les Enfants.' He grew up, attended the Sorbonne, became an assistant to Jacques Cousteau ('Le Monde du Silence') and went on to make his own series of often exceptional fiction and documentary films ('The Lovers,' 'Phantom India,' 'Murmur of the Heart,' 'Human, Much Too Human,' 'Lacombe, Lucien' and 'Atlantic City,' among others). Every film that Mr. Malle made in those intervening years has been preparation for 'Au Revoir les Enfants.' Like 'The Dead,' which it resembles in no other way, it's a work that has the kind of simplicity, ease and density of detail that only a film maker in total command of his craft can bring off, and then only rarely. 'Au Revoir les Enfants,' which opens today at Cinema 1, is a fiction film created out of memory and made tough by a responsible journalist's conscience. It's about life during the German Occupation of France, about being a bright, curious, rather privileged child, about growing up and, perhaps most important, about the compulsive need to find meaning, if not order, through recollection. At the beginning of the film, Julien Quentin (Gaspard Manesse) is on a Paris railroad platform saying goodbye to his pretty mother before returning to school. He clings to her and weeps like a 6-year-old, and when she points out that this parting is not, exactly, forever, he doesn't hesitate to announce - haughtily - that he detests her. Yet she encourages his childish behavior. 'I'd like to dress up like a boy and join you,' she says and hugs him. 'Then we could be together and nobody would know.' It's a splendidly ambiguous moment, the sort that films don't often contain. It may be the first time that Julien senses the end of childhood. The last thing that a 12-year-old boy wants is a boyhood pal who's actually his mother in kneepants. Julien is truculent in his initial encounters with the mysterious 'new boy,' Jean Bonnet (Raphael Fejto), who's considerably taller than he is and completely self-reliant. The new boy is given the bed next to Julien's in the dormitory. He attempts to be friendly, but Julien is wary. 'I'm Julien Quentin. Don't mess with me,' is all that Julien will say at first. In the classroom Julien is jealous of the ease with which Jean answers questions. He's also baffled by Jean's indifference to gross insults, threats and practical jokes, which, according to the code of adolescents, are supposed to prompt outrage. Little by little, Julien's curiosity gets the better of him. The two boys, who share a passion for books, become inarticulate friends, which still doesn't stop Julien from going through his friend's locker, where he discovers the secret of Jean's identity. His real name: Jean Kippelstein. A day or two later, Jean asks his older brother, 'What's a 'Yid'?' Mr. Malle never gets in the way of this story of friendship, betrayal and guilt. It's as if it were telling itself, rather than being recalled and composed by someone outside. The film attends to the daily routine of school life much the way Julien does, without noticing the things that will seem important only later, including the presence of the much despised Joseph. Joseph (Francois Negret) is the school's runty, lame young kitchen helper, who supplies the boys with cigarettes and other black-market items in return for the food the boys receive from home. Though the relationship of the naive, impressionable Julien and the exotic, martyred Jean is the focus of the film, Joseph is the film's catalyst, as well as its conscience. Mr. Malle treats his young actors without condescension and they, in turn, respond with performances of natural gravity and humor. Most directors seem to go wrong when they attempt to recapture the way children behave and talk with each other when adults aren't around. Children in movies tend to become far brighter and more precocious than any children ever are. They are children remembered as we wish we had been. Mr. Malle never indulges this longing. 'Au Revoir les Enfants' remains utterly specific, which is why it's so moving without ever being sentimental. Though the action of the film covers only a few weeks, it seems (as it might to a child) to cover a lifetime. Not until the closing credits does Mr. Malle allow himself to take the long view. Not until then does everything we've seen begin to make the sense that Mr. Malle is just now coming to terms with. Mr. Manesse and Mr. Fejto are fine, but Mr. Negret is especially memorable as Joseph, who is a small, rich variation on the doomed farm boy in 'Lacombe, Lucien.' The excellent supporting cast includes Francine Racette, as Jean's bewitching mother; Stanislas Carre de Malberg, as Julien's worldly older brother, and Philippe Morier-Genoud, as the headmaster who, in one of the film's funnier moments, lectures a church full of well-heeled parents on the difficulties that a camel faces in passing through the eye of a needle.
    VINCENT CANBY, The New York Times, February 12, 1988
    Louis Malle’s quasi-autobiographical masterpiece Au Revoir Les Enfants from 1987 is now re-released in cinemas in the same week as Holocaust Memorial Day. It remains breathtakingly good. There is a miraculous, unforced ease and naturalness in the acting and direction; it is classic movie storytelling in the service of important themes, including the farewell that we must bid to our childhood, and to our innocence – a farewell repeated all our lives in the act of memory. The scene is Nazi-occupied France in 1944 and the wealthy, urbane parents of 12-year-old Julien (Gaspard Manesse) have sent him away to a Catholic boarding school in the country. Here he makes the acquaintance of a shy, clever new boy called Jean Bonnet (Raphaël Fejtö), about whose wellbeing the headmaster seems very solicitous. The boys’ friendship may not be enough to protect Jean when a momentous secret is discovered. Malle shows how the French are conflicted about their collaborationist attitude. The German soldiers seem sympathetic: many are Catholic people from southern Germany and come to the schools’ priests, politely asking for confession. When the boorish local civilian militia try to eject an elderly Jewish man from a restaurant, some German officers, lunching at the same establishment, gallantly if drunkenly intervene on the man’s side. And among the French there is a genuine disgust with fascism and antisemitism, but fatally combined with shame, class division and a dark tendency towards denunciation and spite. As an evocation of childhood it is superb, comparable to Jean Vigo’s Zéro de Conduite and François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows – perhaps better. Every line, every scene, every shot, is composed with mastery. It has to be seen.
    Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian, 29th January 2015.
    Which of us cannot remember a moment when we did or said precisely the wrong thing, irretrievably, irreparably? The instant the action was completed or the words were spoken we burned with shame and regret, but what we had done never could be repaired. Such moments are rare, and they occur most often in childhood, before we have been trained to think before we act. “Au revoir les enfants” (“Goodbye, Children”) is a film about such a moment, about a quick, unthinking glance that may have cost four people their lives. The film was written and directed by Louis Malle, who based it on a childhood memory. Judging by the tears I saw streaming down his face on the night the film was shown at the Telluride Film Festival, the memory has caused him pain for many years. His story takes place in 1944, in a Catholic boarding school in Nazi-occupied France. At the start of a new semester, three new students are enrolled, and we realize immediately that they are Jews, disguised with new names and identities in an attempt to hide them from the Nazis. To Julien Quentin (Gaspard Manesse), however, this is not at all obvious. Julien, who is intended to be Malle’s autobiographical double, does not quite understand all of the distinctions involving Jews and gentiles in a country run by Nazis. All he knows is that he likes one of the new boys, Jean Bonnet (Raphael Fejto), and they become friends. Jean is not popular with the other students, who follow the age-old schoolboy practice of closing ranks against newcomers. But then, Julien is not very popular, either. The two boys are a little dreamy and thoughtful, absorbed in themselves and their imaginations, as bright adolescents should be. Malle’s film is not filled with a lot of dramatic incidents. Unlike such roughly comparable Hollywood films as “The Lords of Discipline,” it feels no need for strong plotting and lots of dramatic incidents leading up to the big finale. Instead, we enter the daily lives of these boys. We see the classroom routine, the air-raid drills, the way each teacher has his own way of dealing with problems of discipline. More than anything else, we get a feeling for the rhythm of the school. Malle has said that when, years later, he visited the site of the boarding school he attended, he found the building had disappeared and the school forgotten. But to a student enrolled in such a school, the rules and rituals seem timeless, handed down by innumerable generations and destined to survive forever. A schoolboy cannot be expected to understand how swiftly violence and evil can strike out and change everything. Julien and Jean play together, study together, look at dirty postcards together. One day - one of those cold, early spring days when the shadows seem ominous and there is an unsettling wind in the trees - they go exploring in a nearby forest and darkness falls. They get lost, or almost lost, and they weather this adventure and become even closer friends. One day, Julien accidentally discovers that Jean Bonnet is not his friend’s real name. A few days later, when Julien’s mother comes to visit, he invites Jean to join them at lunch in a local restaurant, and they witness an anti-Semitic incident as a longtime local customer is singled out because he is Jewish. That is about all the input that Julien receives, and it is hard to say exactly what he knows, or suspects, about Jean. But when Nazis visit the school, Julien performs in one tragic second an action that will haunt him for the rest of his days. Malle has said the incident in “Au revoir les enfants” does not exactly parallel what happened in real life, but the point must be the same: In an unthinking moment, action is taken that never can be retrieved. Is the film only about guilt? Not at all. It is constructed very subtly to show that Julien only half realized the nature of the situation, anyway. It isn’t as if Julien knew absolutely that Jean was Jewish. It’s more as if Julien possessed a lot of information that he had never quite put together, and when the Nazis came looking for hidden Jews, Julien suddenly realized what his information meant. The moment in which he makes his tragic mistake is also, perhaps, the moment when he comprehends for the first time the shocking fact of racism
    Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun Times, March 18, 1988

    What you thought about Au Revoir Les Enfants

    Film Responses

    Excellent Good Average Poor Very Poor
    76 (79%) 12 (13%) 6 (6%) 0 (0%) 2 (2%)
    Total Number of Responses: 96
    Film Score (0-5): 4.67

    Collated Response Comments

    “Au Revoir Les Enfants” is the most popular film of the season so far with an aggregate 92% score in the excellent and good categories from a 79% response. This is not surprising in light of quality of the film itself, but definitely surprising given the number of comments that were made about the quality of the screening and the subtitles on the print we showed. Where you sat in the room clearly impacted the overall satisfaction level and we can only apologise to all of you who, for the most part, politely, pointed out the shortcomings of the screening. Before we screen another film at the Wilfred Noyce Centre we will ensure the projector is one of ours or the one in place is moved so that the image fills the whole screen. In hindsight we should not have been showing such an old film with less than stellar subtitles. We will do better. Some observations of the film which highlighted the subtitle issue were as follows: “Outstanding film seriously undermined by illegible subtitles”, “Difficult to read sub titles when white on white”, “Excellent performances from the boys. Beautifully filmed. I could not read some of the subtitles so that hindered the understanding of the storyline”. “Unfortunately we could not see the sub-titles against a pale background from the back of the hall but it did not spoil the film”. “Moving and gripping but very hard to read the subtitles”. “We were unable to follow the subtitles which was infuriating and spoilt the atmosphere. Otherwise moving and well told”. Many more of you wrote in a similar vein. Those of you with an uninterrupted view told us that this was “outstanding, and the most powerful film I’ve seen for a long time. Quite brilliant. I thought I was seeing violence in the playground and gratuitous cruelty amongst the boys – and then both they and I came face to face with the real deal! I would love to know how this affected these boys and whether they all went on to fight injustice and prejudice in this world” and “Incomparably good and profoundly moving – pitched straight at the mind and heart. Cruelty has a human face – and bravery in the face of tyranny takes many forms. Pick of the season”. “Done with great feeling”. “A very absorbing film in which I became totally involved. One could tell that it had a long gestation…deeply felt”. Other comments on the context included, “a brutal film in the gentlest way. The shocking dénouement in stark contrast to the rest of the film – a warm humane and convincing portrait of likeable boys being educated by caring and patient staff. The horror of Quentin’s realisation that he has accidentally betrayed his friend is unbearably moving. I’ve seen the film before but knowing the ending just makes it all the more poignant. Also a damming indictment of the Final solution than many more direct films. Superb 10/10”. “I found this film very moving. No wonder it took 40 years to produce! Trauma is painfully crippling. Brave and intense”. “Plus ca change! Terrific performances from the boys”. “Superb performances with huge credibility and nostalgia of boys boarding schools with the diversity of characters. A fable for all times”. “Beautifully constructed film. Well-acted.”. “Just as good the second time around – great photography”. “Beautifully filmed, fantastic acting and very moving. A timely reminder of the danger of ignorant prejudice”. “Powerful and moving”. “Brilliant – the French have a way with film – slow build to inevitable conclusion. All the more horrific knowing that the story was based on reality. Only criticism - white on white subtitles”. “Thought provoking and beautifully filmed”. With one particular observation highlighted “the sound of the children’s boots on the street and repeated in the soldiers’ boots later”. “An impressive and deeply moving film marginally spoilt by semi legible sub titles”. Extraordinarily moving – low key tones added to the atmosphere – well acted and very evocative of that period. Interesting how the boys gradually realised the seriousness of the situation”. “So understated – so effective”. "I saw this film about 25 years ago and it moved me just as much this time” “the atmosphere of the time was very well portrayed and the music was excellent. Best film yet”. “Brilliantly acted – extremely moving – captured the atmosphere wonderfully especially in black and white. The understated violence was most effective”. “Almost a silent movie for a non-French speaker – shocking sub titles”. “A dramatic story told with depth and restraint. More French films please”. “Very moving. But depressing and sad to remember the 2nd world war. Very unfortunate about the illegibility of the subtitles and my French is not good enough to follow all the dialogue!” “I am sure that it was a good BUT it was ruined by the illegible subtitles. A harrowing film with a depressing ending. But sadly all true to reality”. “As to the content sadly over 70 years on we seem to be failing to learn from history and are heading the same way. I was born in 1948 and we are going backwards”. “A very moving film dealing with the themes of collaboration and resistance and losing childhood innocence. It was spoiled by unreadable subtitles much of the time”. “Very good acting and exactly how people were treated when the Jews were hounded during the War”.

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