Au Revoir Les Enfants (1987)
What follows is the fourth in a series of essays produced in conjunction with The Cineastes.
Louis Malle, the French Auteur whose career spanned more than forty years is a filmmaker that has long escaped the attention of this writer. Alas that has been put straight this week with screenings of several of his most popular works taken in. While I preferred the laid back intensity of his earlier work Ascenseur pour l’échafaud (Elevator To The Gallows), and will indeed be writing a piece on that over the next few days, Au Revoir Les Enfants (Goodbye Children) is a satisfying piece of late 1980’s Gallic drama.
Au Revoir Les Enfants revolves around the students of an all-boys, church run boarding school in 1943 occupied France. The main focus of the piece is Julien Quentin (Gaspard Manesse), the bratty child of a rich Parisian family and thinly veiled vessel of Malle himself. That the boy is portrayed with such disdain at times no doubt ties into the continued guilt that Malle still feels over the events that take place in the film, with the director unflinching in the emotional brutality he lays upon the boy. After returning to boarding school after the Christmas vacation Julien encounters Jean Bonnet (Raphael Fejtö) a new pupil at the school, and one who shares an interest in literature with Julien, but very little else. Where Julien is bold and brash, Jean instead is bookish and introvert, qualities for which he is teased by the other boys. Jean is holding on to a deep secret that could put the school and himself at risk were it to ever come out. Slowly the pair build a friendship, having bonded during a game of capture the flag that goes awry, and, upon fully realising the extent to Jean’s secret, Julian becomes incredibly protective of his friend, only for fate to intervene, and allow revelations to come unto being.
“Do you realise that there’ll never be another January 17th, 1944?” Julien Quentin.
Louis Malle was an incredibly diverse filmmaker, whose work was tied together thematically as opposed to visually or even stylistically. As such comparing Au Revoir Les Enfants with Ascenseur pour l’échafaud would prove a largely pointless task, at least in attempting to garner some kind of motif. The opening exchange between Julien and his mother (Francine Racette) borders on that of the tearful goodbye of two lovers, and is indicative of the theme of incest, which is one of the most overbearing themes running throughout Malle’s work, of which Murmur Of The Heart tackles most full on. In this scene the deeply contrasting luxury of Julien’s life is hinted at, which differs greatly with the world around them. This is encouraged further during the later scene in the restaurant, which in itself conflicts effectively with what by then has become the general tone of the film. In a way Au Revoir Les Enfants is a film about changes, albeit not in the usual manner. The fleeting way in which the focus and intentions of our characters change is reflective in the tone and pace of the film, and while it sounds rather an explicit manner in which to act on paper, for the duration of the film it is actually rather subtle. Perhaps no better is this on display than in the very early moments of the film, in which the credit sequence ends. Having been soundtracked up until this moment by the diegetic sounds of the train that is taking Julien back to school, the sound of the boys choir singing in unison as the young men make their way up the cobbled streets of Fontainebleau takes over. It’s actually surprisingly harsh, in terms of structurally at least, and really sets the tone for a different pace from the one that preceded the credits.
The nature of the slow paced narrative dictates that it is the characters and performances that really form the brunt of the appeal of Au Revoir Les Enfants, and with that in mind it’s worth noting that Malle cast unknowns for most of the roles. It was the first role for many of the child actors present, including both Manesse and Fejtö, and while Racette had performed before, Au Revoir Les Enfants would prove to be her swansong, for she would go on to marry Donald Sutherland and raise his children shortly after production finished. Very little was heard from the core cast, post- Au Revoir Les Enfants, with Fejtö now a filmmaker, and Manesse a composer (cryptically mirroring the path of the core protagonist of Christophe Barratier’s Les Choristes, a film which owes a great debt to Malle’s film). Traditionally the use of non-actors instills a sense of authenticity within a picture. “Movie Stars” don’t constantly distract the audience, and so the picture sits better in terms of getting across a particular atmosphere. The fate of a particular character by way of audience expectation doesn’t exist in a film made up of cast of non-actors either, so we are left in the position that anything can happen; A characters fate isn’t determined by the ego of it’s player. This proves ultimately effective within Au Revoir Les Enfants, and while it isn’t a film that relies on cheap shots or easy thrills, the ultimate conclusion to the film was left up in the air for much of the duration.
“Arithmatic is useless, unless you want to be an accountant.” Julien Quentin.
As it is children we are dealing with, traditionally very basic characters by default, the manner in which each of the main players are introduced works accordingly, and by the point at which the first 15 minutes or so of the film is reached, each child has a particular role and place defined (all but Julien that is, whose path is much more complex). As if to “wrap up” the introductory phase of the film, Malle chooses to keenly display each of these roles within the short confines of a scene set during meal time. The presumptions we have already made about certain characters, be it the fat, greedy boy, or the bullying nature of others are explicitly laid out in this one sequence, during which the intention is for the boys to share out the food they have brought with them. Again, it’s fairly basic storytelling, but it comes laden with a level of subtlety that prevents it from being patronising. It feels tender as opposed to forthright.
In a similar fashion, the portrayal of the German soldiers is handled in a surprisingly sophisticated manner. The scene in the restaurant, in which a group of Nazi soldiers actually defend an old Jewish man is incredibly touching, and about as far removed from the usual definition of the cinematic Nazi as one can think of. Likewise the way in which the Nazi soldiers are later mocked is in no way through a traditional form of ridicule. Instead Malle portrays the events as no doubt happened and lets his audience unravel the stupidity in their methods (in reference to the scene where the Nazi soldiers request to see the penis of a boy they suspect to be a Jew). It’s not played for laughs, but Malle is confident enough in his audience’s own capabilities to let the scene play as is, and let his viewer highlight how ridiculous it all is themselves. Such scenes were no doubt inspired by real events, it has a very authentic feel to it, to the extent that one can easily envision the young Malle sat with his mother at the restaurant table, witnessing the German soldiers heroic act.
Out of all of the characters it is Julien Quentin, Malle incarnate that develops the most. From the brash, bawdy brat of the opening beats, to the conscientious, friend of the closing frames, Julien adapts and develops in front of our eyes. The expectation of the audience is once again played with in the scene marking the completion of Julien’s transition. A sequence involving his sniffing of a letter sent from home suggests an evolutionary leap has taken place, with the rest of the scene, in which Julien removes Jean’s Hannukia candles from underneath his pillow heading in the presumed dastardly direction of norm. That Julien doesn’t do something recreant with the candles comes with great surprise, and again plays with the expectations of the viewer.
The introduction of the beautiful music teacher Mile Davenne (Three Colour Red’s Irene Jacob) and object of many of the boys affection comes not only as a revelation to the students, but also to the viewer, as it marks another key change in the tone of the film. It’s almost as if another layer is added, and as the scene plays out to the sound of Jean playing the piano another chapter ends. What appears to be shaping up to be a rather tender moment is sullied by a rebellious declaration of “ass kisser” from Julien, in a literal incarnation of the bitterness the film holds which is rather significant compared to the amount seen in films of a similar ilk (French childhood dramas, of which more will be spoken later). With this rebel yell it’s almost as if Malle himself is announcing that Au Revoir Les Enfants is not the film you think it is, and with that he would be right, as the film bears little semblance to the films of this genre, or the films of his oeuvre.
“You should try the violin” Mile Devenne.
There is a strong history of the childhood coming of age drama in French cinema. The most obvious example would be Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, but there are also the likes of Maurice Pialat’s L’Enfance-Nue, which acts as a spiritual companion to Truffaut’s debut feature, and Claude Jutra’s French-Canadian Mon Oncle Antoine, a film which shares elements of Au Revoir Enfants religious theme. While Au Revoir Enfants differs considerably to the other films mentioned it does maintain a sense of childhood joy that is prevalent in the subgenre, for example in the stilt fight, or the naivety of the scene set in the public baths. The effects of the war are put across in a childlike, almost innocent manner, with the black outs treated as adventures, and the way in which rationing dictates that they must brush their teeth without toothpaste, and the price of jam on the black market. This sense of youthful rapture is best inhabited in the scene where the boys watch Charlie Chaplin’s The Immigrant, as the boys laugh and scream in time with the comic beats projected onto the matted screen.
Visually Au Revoir Les Enfants feels largely removed from Malle’s earlier work, at least in the early portion of the film. Largely still, basic camerawork replaces the daring, free-jazz timed movement of Henri Decaë’s camera in Ascenseur pour l’échafaud, and I actually noted whilst watching Au Revoir Les Enfants that it felt like the film of an aged artist. Not that this is any kind of negative complaint, in fact it’s actually a fairly endearing remark, alas I maintain that original stance. There is a break midway through though, which also happens to be the key moment in the relationship between Julien and Jean whereby the camera manages to break free and indeed break out of the imaginary shackles that hold it. I am of course referring to the “capture the flag” sequence, in which the voracity of Malle’s earlier work shines through. It’s a scene that marks an important tipping point in the film, as the repercussions of this moment seals their friendship, so the use of such rapid and contextually refreshing camerawork is very important, especially when put alongside the scene that follows. As we the viewer are made privy to Jean’s secret fairly early on the scene involving the patrolling German soldiers finding the boys lost in the woods brings with it a certain amount of suspense and dread (again, familiar themes from Malles earlier work). In the context of the preceding scene this shift in tone is made all the more effective, and harks back to my earlier point about how the film manages to change gear rapidly and unexpectedly. It’s masterful filmmaking, and incredibly confident. The fact that the German soldiers dialogue lacks subtitles puts the viewer in the same situation as that of most of the on screen characters, and as the role of the German’s becomes larger and more pivotal towards the fate of our protagonists, the lack of understanding on our behalf adds to the tension and confusion.
“Goodbye, children. I’ll see you soon.” Pere Michel.
Thematically the tomes of Catholic guilt and the accompanying religious overtones obviously brought to mind the work of Bresson and Scorsese. As I have mentioned previously, Malle appears to lay a heavy amount of burden in his portrayal of Julien, the reasoning I have suggested being his own guilt over the matter. In a way its almost like a revenge film, in tone at least, yet the revenge isn’t aimed at anyone other than the author himself.
Further to this theme of guilt and conscience the concept of consequence is thrown into the mix, through the acts of Joseph, the young school worker, who, upon losing his job over a black market racket co-ordinated with the help of the blame-shifting schoolboys reports the schools harbouring of Jewish children to the German authorities. While he sees this as being no big deal, “Stop acting so pious!” he cries to Julien, emotionally the film is actively tackling an issue that only earlier it had quietly dismissed in the sacking of Joseph, which in itself is an example of consequence. It’s difficult to not presume that these moments are intended as allegory, alas I am assured that it is intended sincerely and immediately.
The other guys that make up The Cineastes have also done pieces on Au Revoir Les Enfants, find them at the following links -
Adam Cook at The Bronze
Amber at Nouvelle Vague Cinematheque
Crap Monster at YGG’noise
Doc Oz at Cine-diagnosis
Edouard Hill at Allan Gray’s Imagination
Kurt Walker at Walking in the Cinema
Jake at Filmbound
Josh Wiebe at Octopus Cinema
Matthias Galvin at Framed
Neil Alcock at The Incredible Suit
Tom Day at Serious About Cinema
Witkacy at Inertial Frame