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The movie was a project close to Louis Malle's heart (he was in tears when
the film premiered at a film festival in 1987) and it shows in the
multi-layered treatment he gives the central setting, this fascinating
boarding school with its broad cast of characters. Because there are so many
different strands and affecting moments tangential to the central plot, one
is not entirely prepared for the finale even if you are expecting it. French
film is characteristically digressive, often to a fault, but here it works
to splendid advantage. It also lends itself to repeat viewings.
I don't think you need to have lived in occupied Europe to appreciate this wonderful film; it speaks to all of us who have lived through childhood's quickly-passing parade and know its lifelong regrets. That last image of the stone wall is emblazoned in many consciousnesses, as it is in mine.
There are many interesting choices Malle makes in this film. For example, while the central subject is the Holocaust, nearly all the Germans we actually see in the film are fairly decent if nonetheless menacing types. The real villains here are almost entirely French collaborators, which was done I think to call attention to collaboration during a period when the French were dealing with the Klaus Barbie trial. [Barbie was a Gestapo officer who was aided in his work rooting out Resistance leaders by many French collaborators.] But casting French people as the heavies also suggests the central evil of prejudice and oppression is not something exclusive to one nationality, and it broadens the scope of the movie.
The tender treatment Malle affords the Catholic hierarchy in the movie is unusual, too, when you see other more anti-clerical Malle efforts like "Murmur of the Heart." There is an unexpected sense of spirituality throughout this film, somewhat muted but there all the same.
This may well stand as the cinematic masterpiece of a man who, at his best (see also "Atlantic City" and "My Dinner With Andre") was to motion pictures what his countrymen Zola and Hugo were to novels: An artist who filled his canvas with the verve and breadth of human life.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Au Revoir, Les Enfants (1987) ****
What is this film? Is it just a deeply moving, real film? Is it something more - an exorcism of sorts? Louis Malle's 1987 masterpiece 'Au Revoir, Les Enfants' has had much said about it due to its personal nature for Malle. When the movie played at Telluride, Malle cried, tears streaming down his cheeks. I knew the first time i saw the film that it was autobiographical, so perhaps this helped make the film affect me a little more strongly. Whatever the case, Malle has created a heart breaking work of genius.
In a Catholic boarding school during the Nazi occupation of France, Julien Quietin, played by Gaspard Manesse as the character based around Malle, is no ordinary student. He is intelligent and different from the others. The school is also no ordinary boarding school- it has a secret. A new student arrives at the school one day, Jean Bonnet (Raphael Fejtö) and becomes a sort of intellectual rival to Julien. After some early hostilities the boys begin to connect, and eventually become good friends.
Malle does not rely on overly dramatic sequences where not necessary as a way to build up the plot. Instead he shows us the monotonous daily routines of life at the school: prayers, mass, classes, music and exercise classes, and even air-raids.
Eventually, Julien comes to realize that his new friend is a Jew. He is too young to really understand what the big deal is. What is the problem with Jews he later asks? During parents visitation, Julien takes Jean along with his family as Jean has not seen his father in two years, or heard from his mother in months. While at the restaurant, French collaborators come in and begin harassing a long time customer because he is Jewish in a 'No-Jews-allowed' restaurant. Things seem like they are about to explode for the young boys but to their, and our, surprise the collaborators are thrown out by some German soldiers who are eating at the next table over.
We see the fear in Jean's eyes every time the Germans come near, and in one intimately close instance after the boys had been lost in the woods and stumbled upon a road and unrealizingly flag down a car driven by Nazi soldiers, Jean's turn to actions as he attempts to run away only to be caught. The soldiers do not realize that Jean is a Jew, or that the priest has been hiding Jews at his school. After all, why would they? They drive the boys back to the school.
These scenes work like magic on screen. The actions and words are hauntingly real and often naive. One day the Gestapo arrives looking for a Jean Kippelstein, and in a moment of unconscious reaction, Julien unwittingly outs his friend. The Jewish students are rounded up, and the priest, Father Jean, is taken away with them and the school is now to be closed.
Louis Malle has said that he wanted to make this film a long time ago, but could not find the strength. The film is not a direct parallel to the real events, but perhaps more a parallel to Malle's memories and guilt about the incidence. The end result on film is a stunningly beautiful and incredibly touching portrait of friendship, guilt, frustration and anger and I'm sure it worked wonders for Malle as an exorcism of his past.
Sometimes there are moments we almost don't realize take place, and often they can be some of the most important in our lives, and 'Au Revoir, Les Enfants' is a haunting testament to how these moments can change your life, for better or for worse.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
"Goodbye children" is to director Louis Malle what "The Pianist" has
been to Roman Polanski. These are movies that dealt with intimate
matters related to painful childhood experiences, both taking place in
occupied Europe during WW2. In both cases, it is palpable that they
were movies that these directors had planned to make for a long time,
but they waited until they had achieved a considerable degree of
recognition at the end of their careers, so that they would feel self
assured enough to carry their project out.
"Goodbye children" evolves around two essential guidelines : the first one is the historical background of France during WW2. The second one is about childhood friendship and loss.
There are quite a lot of movies that were set in France during WW2, but the matter of collaboration of the French with the Germans was still a sensitive subject in 1987. A decade before, Louis Malle had made a film called "Lacombe Lucien", portraying a young French peasant entering the Gestapo as a way of social promotion, and it caused quite a controversy. Things had quietened a bit though, when "Goodbye children" came out, and most of the people who had lived through the period as children seemed to be pleasantly reminded of childhood memories, as the boarding school and its characters appears to be a very good reflection of reality.
Ugly as it has been, collaboration was nothing else as a survival policy. In war time and or/dictatorship, people rarely afford to have moral dilemmas, and this is well shown in the movie as a thriving black market goes on among children at the boarding school. The character of Joseph, an illiterate limping cook, is the one who gets blamed when the black market scandal breaks out, and loses his job. He is also the one who is going to sell out everybody, by revenge. He betrays because he feels betrayed. When one has seen "Lacombe Lucien", it impossible not to make a link between the two characters.
"Goodbye children" is also a very good study of the division among French people at the time. When an old Jewish man is arrested at the restaurant by the French "milice" (political police under the Vichy regime), there is as much applause as protest. What comes as a surprise is the positive role played by the church, impersonated here by Father Jean, who is in fact a resistant hiding Jewish children and holds provocative sermons during mass. There definitely existed such priests, and it is all the more surprising to get that portrayal from a left-wing director like Louis Malle.
The plot evolves around two very different young boys. One, Julien, comes from a typical French upper-class family, he is both gifted and spoiled. The other, Jean, is the typical Jewish boy, brilliant but secretive. Of course, no one among the college boys knows that Jewish kids are hiding there under false identities. Julien is at first both irritated and intrigued by this odd rival, but as they confront, they gradually become implicit allies. Their bonding is well illustrated by a few scenes, for example when they get lost together in the woods, or when they play piano during a bomb alert.
As it can be expected from twelve year old boys, they only scantly express an attachment which becomes all the more real. The very fact that a film about child friendship is done by a director who is past fifty is a revealer of its very importance in a whole lifetime. Julien only realizes the price of it when Jean is arrested by the Gestapo, and waves discreetly as he walks out the college door, never to be seen again. The final shot of Julien's disarrayed face, which appears chillingly mature for the first time, is a very powerful one. But well, Louis Malle was not an amateur.
"Goodbye children" is also a major film about loss, and it gets all the more effective in doing so that it ends abruptly, leaving you with a feeling of irreversibility. You never quite know how long you are going to know someone, how long you still will be there, you are rarely quite aware when you see someone for the last time. It is only when people are gone forever that you can realize how meaningful they were to you.
If you are studying French or interested in French culture, this is really a movie which, as a Frenchman myself, I would recommend because it is both excellent, accessible and representative. Unsurprisingly, it received several Cesars, including the one of the best film of the year (Cesars are our French equivalent of Oscars).
This is a very moving film, most likely based on an actual event. The Carmelite priest,Lucien Bunel (1900-1945, "Pere Jacques") was founder and director of the Petit College d'Avon, near Fontainebleau. He was arrested on Jan. 15, 1994, accused of hiding 3 Jewish boys among his students, and was deported to the infamous Mauthausen concentration camp. He died in Linz, Austria on June 2, 1945. Malle's film depicts the intense trauma of Jewish children who were separated from their families and forced to take on a new identity in hiding, always afraid of being found out. They also faced the dilemma of how to maintain their Jewishness in the setting of a Catholic school. So, not just another war movie, this film depicts some of the real struggles facing hidden children, many of whom were saved by courageous Christians in Europe.
In this spellbinding film, Louis Malle is able to evoke the fear and
some children suffer while away from home at a boarding school, the
loneliness. Yet he doesn't dwell on sentimentality but only skims it,
instead peppering the scenes with the bravura and faux assertiveness of
adolescents. Malle and the actors adroitly juggle circumstances and
emotions. Ultimately, they capture a terrifying time in history through
eyes and uncertainty of boys who aren't as grown-up as they'd like to
The two main characters, Julien Quentin and Jean Bonnet, are beautifully portrayed by two very capable and talented young actors. The supporting cast is equally impressive. The film is directed with a touch of genius, and holds its own when compared to another motion picture masterpiece, To Kill a Mockingbird.
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This is a masterpiece of cinema, a work of genius by one of the greatest directors, Louis Malle. He does everything with the barest touch, just the slightest emphasis, without rancor or any loading of the deck. He understates and plays fair always. He has complete control of his story and of the audience. He knows what they believe and what they expect. He respects that, but he doesn't cater, and he is very gentle about leading us to the conclusion. He makes it beautiful although it is horrible.
Gaspard Manesse as Julien and Raphael Fejto as Jean are unforgettable and a reminder that in film it's important to have a good cast. Yet, I suspect Malle could have made geniuses of any number of talented young boys in their parts. This is your Catholic boys school coming of age film without lecherous priests or the brutality of children; that is, no more than is necessary, just what is real and seen in perspective, the context being the Nazi occupation of France in 1944. It is amazing how Malle manages to show the bestiality and brain dead stupidity of the Nazis by presenting them at their most gentle. If one can damn by faint praise, one can destroy by contrast. Compared to what is human and natural we see the Nazis, as their pretentious Reich is falling apart, chasing after children, obsessed with psychotic racist delusions. Through the objective eyes of the children we see the evil. Malle need only let the facts speak for themselves.
I think artists working in any medium would benefit from study of this film.
What it says to us is be honest, be fair, keep it simple, but not too simple. Use not a brush stroke more than necessary, and pay attention to every detail, especially the small ones. But while we can learn from and appreciate, it takes genius to pull it off. It can't be done by connecting the dots.
I am struck by a little irony on the jacket of the video. It has an early Siskel and Ebert quote: 'One of the year's best films.' That's a little embarrassing unless the year is a hundred years long.
Incidentally, the sublime, beautiful and wondrously talented Irène Jacob made her debut here in a small part as a piano teacher.
Louie Malle's film is a deeply personal examination of the Holocaust, childhood friendship and accidental betrayal. Its young protagonists are affable without being overly sweet or cloying, and despite the semi-autobiographical nature of the story, Malle never gives over to cheap sentimentality the way Steven Spielberg might. While this is one of the films that got lost in the quagmire of Orion Classics, other titles from this period have been rescued and released on DVD through MGM. Long since out of print on VHS, it's shameful this film isn't readily available to those who might wish to examine the Holocaust from a different cinematic perspective, or to those seeking a powerful story that never falls prey to pathos.
Possible SPOILERS. After having led a roaming and chaotic life during more than ten years abroad, Louis Malle came back in France and made the movie he was always to make. This one was rewarded in Venise where it won the golden Lion in 1987. "au revoir les enfants" tells the story of a friendship between the son of a wealthy family, Julien and a Jew boy, Jean Bonnet hidden under a false identity. However, at first sight, nothing lets see the start of a friendship between Julien and Jean. Julien feels admiration and curiosity towards this new student but we don't really know why and Jean pretends not to see him. A few events will bring them closer, especially a treasure hunt in the woods... It's a touching, moving and finally tragic story because the intervention of the Gestapo will lead this friendship to an end between the two boys. It's not the first time that a Louis Malle's movie takes place during the second world war. In 1974, "Lacombe Lucien" told the story of a young peasant who found his place in the Gestapo. If this movie had divided the French public, "au revoir les enfants" will provoke the unanimity. Both movies are successful and strong but "Lacombe Lucien" is a rough fiction whereas the other one is partly autobiographical. With this movie, Malle eagered to recall a memory that upset him when he was at school: the arrest of a few Jew children who were hidden under a false identity. This is this memory that he filmed in the last sequence. This last one is carefully prepared and filmed in the minute details as if Malle wanted to recall exactly what he saw it and then don't think about it definitely. This is one of Malle's most beautiful movies and his last great one.
This movies is one of those movies that you can love, but hate. It makes you hate what happens in the movie. You get so attached to the characters, and when things happen to them, you hate it. But the movie is powerful, wonderfully written and directed by Louis Malle and defiantly should be seen anytime one is studying WWII or the Holocost, or if you have free time, and are looking for a good heart-wrencher. I watched it in French, with subtitles, and that makes it all the better.
On seeing this movie several years ago my accompanying colleagues said of
the film: what a load of self-indulgent, confusing, French stylized rubbish.
They bemoaned the slow pace of the film, of the 2 dimensional directing and
lack of any action or violent death scenes!
Those words still linger with me now and has made me realise that perhaps a lot of the movie-going public these days feed on the latest sfx pyrotechnics, more ingenious ways of abstract killings, lots of needless sex and not letting a good intelligent story get in the way.
Films like Les Enfants are going to be even more difficult to track down if Hollywood and some of the European studios opt for the fast Buck route to riches.
Les Enfant is a truly wonderful & yet harrowing account of life in a Catholic boys boarding school during the dying embers of the Nazi occupation of France in WW2. One of the new boys happens to be Jewish but the headmaster chooses to keep such identities covert while still offering him sanctuary and an education in spite of all the risks he takes.
To be fair I know little of Louis Malle previous to this film, but I think he must have poured his life's soul into writing & directing Les Enfant.
No detail, harrowing or otherwise, is spared; we see so much beauty amongst the horrors of occupation & collaboration; but also the blossoming relationship between the two lead boys and how initial envy & hatred of the Jew is somewhat diluted by the realities that this is no infantile school game but that life and death for the Jewish boy hangs by a thread if anyone at the school should reveal his true identity.
The final moments are perhaps one of the most sad & dramatic scenes I have ever seen. These days a lot of people would be waiting for some great heroic entrance from a big movie star to sort out all the misery and leave us with a reassurance that "it really wasn't all that bad back then was it".
But there are no heroes at the end of this movie, at least not the kind of heroes Hollywood serves up. The boys in this film are the true heroes right to the very end, primarily for their spirit of humanity in the face of impossible odds.
This is the hard reality of war amongst children growing up not only in the face of their own adolescence (and all the problems that serves), but also with the dark fingered claw of Nazism hanging menacingly like the the Scythe of the Grim Reaper.
This film will move you in so many directions and will hopefully bring you back down to earth from the current Hollywood shallow circus of pap & style-over-content.
Its a difficult film to track down, and the reason for this can be attributed to the first paragraph of this review.
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