Review: Au Revoir Les Enfants

Mark Reynolds

Au Revoir Les Enfants makes a welcome return to cinemas. Louis Malle’s beautiful, moving and deeply personal 1987 film about lost innocence, childhood friendship and betrayal is re-released to charm a new generation of cinema-goers.

the review

Set in 1944 in a privileged Catholic boys’ school in Fontainebleau, Au Revoir Les Enfants tells the story of the bright and mischievous 12-year-old Julien Quentin (Gaspard Manesse), who is evacuated to the school with his elder brother François during the Nazi Occupation of France.

When new boy Jean Bonnet (Raphaël Fejtö) enters the school, he and Julien are at first rivals, but soon form a close bond and share an unspoken secret about Jean’s true identity.

Daily routine within the school walls is largely uninterrupted by the ominous events outside. During air raids, classes continue in the shelter of the school basement; and on one occasion Julien and Jean stay above ground with the run of the school, taking the opportunity to bang out some jazz on the music-room piano.

The two boys’ friendship is cemented when they get lost on a winter treasure hunt in the neighbouring woods and are rescued by compassionate German soldiers. Another time, in a restaurant on parents’ visiting day, an elderly Jewish man is confronted by French fascists and told to leave – but German officers step in as peacemakers.

We are left in no doubt about the evils of Nazism and anti-semitism, but Malle does not seek to demonise every individual on the German side – rather he is dismayed at the memory of inhumanity in all its guises.

The peaceful haven of schoolboy pranks and escapades is disrupted when it is discovered that orphaned kitchen hand Joseph is stealing from the school and doing deals with pupils to sell the contents of their food parcels from home to sell on the black market.

When Joseph is summarily dismissed (and the pupils only mildly disciplined), he conspires with Gestapo officers controlling the town, who enter the school to root out a handful of Jewish boys and the priest who has been harbouring them.

The film’s final words of loss and regret are spoken by Malle himself, in an unforgettable evocation: “More than forty years have passed, but I'll remember every second of that January morning until the day I die…"

Remarkably, neither of the two lead boys had acted before, and have hardly acted again since, but their wholly natural and beautifully shot friendship is spellbinding. Having been haunted by the story throughout his life, Malle accomplishes a searing depiction of dawning maturity and understanding.

The film’s many awards include the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, a BAFTA for Best Direction, and seven Césars including Best Film, Best Director and Best Cinematography, as well as Golden Globe and Oscar nominations. Don’t miss this rare chance to catch Malle’s masterwork on the big screen.

Au Revoir Les Enfants is released at BFI Southbank, IFI Dublin, Curzon Mayfair, Bristol Watershed and selected cinemas around the UK on Friday 30 January, with a special preview screening at the BFI Southbank on Holocaust Memorial Day, Tuesday 27 January, introduced by film writer and historian Philip Kemp. Click here for more information.

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