Au Revoir Les Enfants (1987)

Director:  Louis Malle
Cast:  Gaspard ManesseRaphael Fejt√∂Francine Racette
Plot:  A French boarding school run by priests seems to be a haven from World War II until a new student arrives. He becomes the roommate of top student in his class. Rivals at first, the roommates form a bond and share a secret.

Genre:  Drama
Awards:  Won Golden Lion (Venice).  Nom. for 2 Oscars - Best Foreign Language Film, and Best Original Screenplay.
Runtime:  104min
Rating:  PG for some thematic material. 

Goodbye, children. I'll see you soon.”

This film is special.  Very special.  The entire film boils down to a singular moment in the final act, an instinctive split-second glance by a young boy towards his dear friend that seals his fate.  It is a memory that continues to haunt Louis Malle, the writer-director of this powerful film about life in Nazi-occupied France.

Based on events of his traumatic childhood, Au Revoir Les Enfants (translated as 'Goodbye Children') is an autobiographical drama about the tragic awakening of the abovementioned young boy.

That boy is Julian (Gaspard Manesse), who befriends Jean (Raphael Fejto) after the latter is admitted into a Catholic boarding school by a kind priest.  After some initial animosity, Julian begins to develop a strong bonding with him, but soon learns to discover that Jean's last name is fake.

Malle's handling of the two boys is superb as they give genuine performances that make the film such a joy to watch.  This is despite the grim subject matter that will eventually rear its head in the climax.

Much of Au Revoir Les Enfants focuses on the fun times Julian and Jean have in school.  They play a duet on the piano, explore the woods, and watch a silent Chaplin film.  There are school bullies, and there is the occasional air raid siren warning of potential danger.  Other than that, the school seems like a safe haven, a shield against the seemingly non-existent Nazis.

Malle's genius is to build his story in this world of false normalcy, such that when the ending comes, it hits you right in the gut, just like it hit the guts of billions after the terrible truth about the Holocaust came out.

The brutality of Au Revoir Les Enfants comes not from its graphic portrayal of physical violence (there are none), but something innately more troubling - the loss of childhood innocence and its psychological toll as a result of one's discovery of evil, in particular extreme racism and its tragic consequences.

In this regard, Julian becomes more than a character in a film; he becomes a symbol of pain and guilt, representing the millions of children who grew up in a time of oppression and prejudice, who grew up with their own haunting stories, many of which will never make the light of day.  That burden is unspeakably brutal.

Verdict:  Perhaps Malle's finest work, this restrained drama builds up slowly, only to leave you emotionally shattered by the end of it. 

GRADE: A (9/10 or 4.5 stars)

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