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For this tale Duras takes as inspiration the Book of Ecclesiastes. Tangential as ever she never directly refers to it, but she does refer to the "book about the King of the Jews chasing the wind" (note in her short film Césarée, she never mentions the central figure of Berenice by name, merely referring to her as the "Queen of the Jews"). Ecclesiastes was a very resonant choice for Duras, having been introduced to it by a man she loved called Freddie. Never underestimate the amount of love Duras pours into a film!
Ecclesiastes was written by an individual who identified himself as the King of Israel, and contains musings and aphorisms regarding the transitory nature of life and the futility of worldly aspirations. Qoheleth, as he is known (a title not a name), emphasises that the only pleasures to be taken in life are fairly immediate ones such as the satisfaction from hard work, and from eating and drinking. In Les Enfants, protagonist Ernesto (Axel Bogousslavsky) asks a group of people to join him in a glass of cider and the peeling of potatoes. It's in this spirit that Duras gifts a lovely piece of jazz music from Carlos d'Alessio near the end of the movie.
Ernesto is a seven-year-old boy who has the body of a thirty-year-old man. He declares, upon attending his first day of school, that he no longer wishes to attend. The reason? He does not wishes to be taught things that he does not know. In a sort of educationalist moonlighting, following in the tradition established by Rousseau, Duras expounds upon the futility of education and its both Procrustean and coercive nature.
The absence of extras is a peculiar feature of the film, which comes off as narcissistic. The school playground, when filmed, is entirely absent of children. Perhaps also the emptiness is symbolic, teaching has destroyed what a child is. The classroom a hall for brats at a spectacle, taught the inevitable truth (for Duras) of God's non-existence. Bright things that chase butterflies, sinning in innocence, turned into wanton gawpers.
Duras' own rather fruity childhood and later educational path possibly informs her revolt against state-organised French education. She was born to a French couple in Indochina, an exotic and harsh place of expedient living. Her father died when she was four, and she was the creature of her depressive and occasionally abusive mother. In adolescence she became the lover of a wealthy Chinese man, as a response to the family's impoverished situation (these events are described in Rithy Panh's movie "The Sea Wall", adapted from Duras' novel). For this she was ostracised at her boarding school in Saigon. Educationally speaking she took her own path at the Sorbonne, where she dropped mathematics in favour of politics and then politics in favour of law. One of Ernesto's messages is that people must only learn to slake their craving for knowledge. He follows a similar interdisciplinary shuffle in his explorations into the boundaries of human knowledge. You don't learn unless you want to, I know people with degrees, who have learnt to pass the exam, but retained nothing, as if their lessons were mercury thrown on a glass slope. Such is the perversity of education.
In an auditorium of perhaps ten people, we had I think four walkouts, which is a measure of the negativity in some of the statements made. Ernesto's mother thanks him at one point, not for relieving her loneliness, but for allowing her to see that it was natural, at another she mentions that, "Life never interested me". Yet if they had stayed I think they would have heard some positive notes. Until the end the film gets progressively darker in terms of the natural light, but in the end is quite beautiful, and Bruno Nyutten is to be congratulated on his photography, particularly the tracking shot along the fence and the lupins and circles. The entire film, although referencing fantastic events involving characters that occur elsewhere in the world during the story, is shot in peaceful and leafy Vitry-sur-Seine, Nyutten certainly grasps its exasperating tranquillity. Congratulations also to Axel Bogousslavsky and his incredibly expressive eyes, very convincing in his seven-year-old mannerisms.
Although some suspect that God has disappeared from human thought, especially in secular France, Duras, via Ernesto was convinced that the God was a marcescent concept, stifling thinking even in its death. As long as man thinks of God, Ernesto says, human limits are fixed. The metaphor of this is when Ernesto's sister and mother sit down and discuss what to cook, running through a score of recipes that are just different ways of cooking potato.
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