Au Revoir Les Enfants, Louis Malle’s semi-autobiographical film about life in a Catholic boarding school for boys in Nazi-occupied France, has been called an elegy of innocence lost, though in fact the youthful characters are never truly innocent, only clueless, and what they lose is not innocence but something more elusive.
They sneer at "the monkeys" (i.e., the monks who run the school) and "the Krauts" the way I remember schoolchildren on the playground in my youth chanting rude verses about the school principal and Richard Nixon, though we knew virtually nothing about either. They try to talk knowledgeably about sex, steal glimpses of naughty pictures, and read racy scenes from Arabian Nights. They know that life is cruel and crisis-filled, though its cruelties for them run to name-calling and short-sheeting, and a problem with bed-wetting (and the dread of discovery) is a terrible burden.
Young Julien Quentin (Gaspard Manesse), the director’s alter ego, has lived in this world for only one semester, but has learned to negotiate it warily. When a dark-haired new boy named Jean Bonnet (Raphael Fejto) joins his dormitory, Quentin’s first reaction is a defiant warning: "I’m Julien Quentin, and don’t mess with me." But Bonnet lives with a secret that Julien can’t begin to imagine, even as he begins to put the pieces together, until a devastating event blows away the petty cruelties, crises and crimes that had until then been his world, and his life is never the same.
For the most part, Au Revoir Les Enfants is bracingly unsentimental and unmanipulative. Though the film ultimately turns on the horror of the Holocaust, Malle gives us a couple of brushes with Nazis who are not bloodthirsty sadists, first a party in a restaurant who unexpectedly toss out a pair of French collaborators, allowing an elderly Jewish patron to finish his meal, and then a patrol in the woods who discover Quentin and Bonnet wandering lost after dark. Malle does perhaps romanticize Bonnet a bit by making him a prodigy in every subject, from geometry to composition to music. On the other hand, Quentin never really gets to know Bonnet, and neither do we.
It’s one thing to have to live with the memory of our own sins, to be haunted by the deliberate choices we made that we would give anything to take back. But most of us also live in the shadow of some event or other during that we didn’t really understand as it was happening, and by the time we did it was too late. There was no moment of truth, no moral crisis, no clearly defined choice. One moment we were simply blundering along, not even realizing we were doing so; the next moment… we spend the rest of our lives in that next moment, reliving it, probing it like a sore tooth. That we may not be at fault in a way only makes it worse, for it means there can be no repentance, no forgiveness, no expiation. We must simply live with it.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.