2017 Blind Spots: Au revoir les enfants

In the winter of 1944 in Nazi-occupied France, Julien Quentin (Gaspard Manesse) returns to his Catholic boarding school following the holiday vacation. Upon his arrival, he meets the school’s newest student, Jean Bonnet (Raphaël Fejtö), who is treated as an outsider by his classmates due to his reserved nature. Though there’s initially some friction between the two boys, a friendship soon develops as Julien learns more about Jean and his true identity.

My children, we live in a time of discord and hatred. Lies are all-powerful. Christians kill one another. Those who should guide us betray us instead. More than ever, we must beware of selfishness and indifference. You’re all from wealthy families, some very wealthy. Because you’ve been given much, much will be asked of you.

Au revoir les enfants is based on events from writer-director Louis Malle’s own childhood, who like the film’s protagonist, attended a Catholic boarding school in France. And as seen at the film’s climax (spoiler alert for those who haven’t seen it), Malle witnessed a Gestapo raid in which three Jewish students and a Jewish teacher were taken away to Auschwitz. Because of the subject matter and how close Malle was to the events portrayed in Au revoir les enfants, it felt like much more care is taken into how the film was executed compared to his other films (which, from the few I’ve seen, are still brilliantly executed as well). And while it’s based on Malle’s boarding school experience, the film doesn’t feel overly sentimental in its approach and instead takes a more honest, reflective look at the way life was more than 40 years before the film’s release.

With the time and place the film is set in, I had an inkling of the direction the story was heading had no idea how the movie itself would conclude. Au revoir les enfants starts a little slow but it does so purposefully, showing the everyday lives of the children in and outside the classroom, and the blossoming friendship between Julien and Jean. And just as their bond grows deeper, it’s interrupted by the film’s climactic scene, showing just how swiftly things could change in times of war. The film’s slow-burning journey, showing the general hardships of growing up alongside the hardships of war, makes the ending all the more effective and heartbreaking. It’s a different type of movie from the era it’s set in, told from a young boy’s point of view, who doesn’t yet have a full grasp of the world he’s living in.

Au revoir les enfants (1987)
Directed by: Louis Malle
Starring: Gaspard Manesse, Raphael Fejtö, Philippe Morier-Genoud, Francine Racette

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