Au Revoir Les Enfants Review

Possibly one of the best ever meditations on childhood, betrayal and rectitude, Louis Malle’s masterpiece, Au Revoir Les Enfants, finally comes to DVD via Criterion. The extras are few but this is the best the film has ever looked.

It is often said that writers produce their best work towards the end of their lives – directors, on the other hand, are a completely different kettle of fish. Partly due to the fickle nature of the business as well as the considerable sums that are at stake, many major directors spend their twilight years churning out pale imitations of their former glory. Louis Malle could have ended in similar style after his American exile turned sour – an exile caused by the controversy that surrounded both Le Souffle Au Coeur and Lacombe, Lucien which some saw as scandalous pieces of cinema (for different reasons). A belated return to the homeland and an introspective film about his youth gave him a second wind.

No stars, a very small budget and his trademark moral ambiguity – Au Revoir Les Enfants is almost the anti-thesis of standard Hollywood films but typical Malle territory. Despite being a WWII film, we are shown little of the usual historical clichés but instead, we are dragged into the claustrophobic world of Julien Quentin (Gaspard Manesse). Having been sent away from his parent’s home in Paris to the Carmelite boarding school near Fontainebleau, Julien feels emotionally abandoned by his mother. His inner turmoil comes through as a mix of aggression and a longing to be liked by his peers. His hardman act can barely mask his constant bed-wetting and emotional trauma. Following the winter break, a new classmate arrives in the form of the bedraggled Jean Bonnet (Raphael Fejtö looking like almost like a young Arthur Rimbaud). Over the weeks, a strong friendship forms between the two boys as they share their burgeoning interest in women, their love of books and Bonnet’s dizzying musical skills.

Both Manesse and Fejtö give pitch perfect performances which is probably partly due to Malle’s extensive experience of directing teenagers. Filming the development of a bond between children is a complex and delicate thing to render on the big screen but here Malle delivers a masterclass in subtlety and restraint. His exploration of childhood has often lingered on how the child’s vision of the world is so markedly different from that of the adult. In Au Revoir Les Enfants, a lot of the adults are peripheral and distant with only Father Jean (Philippe Morier-Genoud) and Julien’s mother (Francine Racette) able to breach the void but the gap between the two worlds grows smaller as the film progresses until its disturbing conclusion.

NOTE: If you have never seen Au Revoir Les Enfants, I would have to ask you to skip to the DVD review part as I feel that some aspects I will now be discussing will spoil the film for the first time viewer.
After his exploration of the ambiguity of being a hero or a villain in Lacombe, Lucien, Malle returns once again to occupied France to revisit an event that marked his life. At the end of the film, we hear Malle himself telling us that the story we have just was based on his own and how the final moments have lived in his mind forever. Even before this startling directorial intervention, there are many pointers that should point us towards the concept of the film being a celluloid confessional – an impression enhanced by the presence of priests and the constant scenes of students confessing their sins. There also seems to be a longing for the certainties of Malle’s youth which are embodied by both Julien’s awakening to the duplicity of the adult world but also Father Jean’s idealistic faith. Conversely, most of his scorn is not reserved for the forces of occupation but for the collabos. Yet Malle, as in Lacombe, Lucien, takes pains to demonstrate how simple it is to become one. But, it seems that Malle is not moralising on this point but pointing how unstable our moral compasses become when in the midst of chaos.

Over the years, I have never failed to be moved to tears by Au Revoir Les Enfants but trying to explain why this film in particular resonates so strongly with me is an impossible task. Maybe I associate so strongly with it since I was around the same age as the main protagonists when I first saw it. Or it may be that, like Louis Malle, I’m longing for the simplicity of a world without compromises or ambiguity. It was around this time I first viewed Lang’s M and both these films left a huge impression upon me, creating a quasi-golden standard of cinema. Time can be very cruel to our heroes and tastes but neither of these films seem ready to fade in quality.

The DVD:

It is slightly surprising that Au Revoir Les Enfants has taken so long to appear on DVD. This Criterion edition is available both individually and as part of a three film boxset of Louis Malle (inc. Lacombe, Lucien and Le Souffle Au Coeur).

The image:
Supervised by the film’s Director of Photography, Renato Berta, the transfer is very good. The original 1.66:1 ratio is observed (a ratio very prevalent in French cinema for some reason) and the muted tones as well as the blueish tint are correctly rendered (though I saw it in the cinema a long time ago, this transfer seems to respect what it looked like back then). There are occasional speckles that seem to have been missed but globally they’ve done a good job cleaning this up. The original grain is still visible but doesn’t cause too much distraction

The sound:
The original mono soundtrack is respected and had a good dynamic range. I did notice a few slight issues with lipsynch though they may have been introduced in the film’s post-production.

The subtitles:
Globally, these are very good but I still feel that songs should be subtitled – often they hold a symbolic nature that is often intentional. For example, in the opening scenes, the school children are singing A La Claire Fontaine – it may be meaningless but I actually think there is a reason for it’s inclusion and thus should be subtitled.

The extras:
On the DVD, we get precious little – the French trailer and a teaser. The included 22-page booklet catches up on that front with two essays. The first is by Philip Kemp analysing the film against the rest of Malle’s work and historian Francis Murphy takes a look at Père Jacques, the inspiration for the charismatic Père Jean.

Well it’s no secret that the film is a modern masterpiece that must be seen. The DVD is a little disappointing on the extras front given that the French release contained some footage from the making-of (though whether it was any good is another matter altogether).

Mark Boydell

Updated: Mar 31, 2006

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