Au revoir les enfants

Au revoir les enfants
Director: Louis Malle
Screenplay: Louis Malle
Stars: Gaspard Manesse (Julien Quentin), Raphael Fejtö (Jean Bonnet), Francine Racette (Julien’s mother), Stanislas Carré de Malberg (François Quentin), Philippe Morier-Genoud (Père Jean), François Berléand (Père Michel), François Négret (Joseph), Peter Fitz (Muller), Pascal Rivet (Boulanger), Benoît Henriet (Ciron), Richard Leboeuf (Sagard)
MPAA Rating: PG
Year of Release: 1987
Country: France / West Germany
Au revoir les enfants Criterion Collection DVD
Au revoir les enfantsLouis Malle was 12 years old in 1944 when he had to stand by helplessly and watch as the Gestapo arrived at the Petit-Collège d’Avon, the small, Catholic boarding school he was attending, and arrested four children and the headmaster. The children were Jewish and had been hidden at the school under assumed names. At the time, Malle didn’t know exactly what he was seeing, but once the war ended and the true nature of Nazi Germany’s intention for Europe’s Jewish population became clear, he realized that he had borne witness to the Holocaust.

Some of the best films about the Holocaust never set foot inside a working concentration camp. Think of Alain Resnais’s disquieting Night and Fog (1955), a half-hour documentary that conveys the horrors of genocide primarily by showing us the ruined remains of the concentration camp buildings a decade after liberation. Louis Malle’s Au revoir les enfants, which presents a fictionalized account of his experiences as a child during the last year of World War II, is like that. Although virtually every frame of the film takes place in and around the Catholic boarding school (the very one, in fact, that Malle attended in 1944), the full, awful weight of history bears down on it, giving the final scene in which Malle restages one of the formative moments of his life the crushing sense of humanity’s ultimate betrayal.

Malle’s alter ego in the film is Julien Quentin (Gaspard Manesse), a precocious 12-year-old who tentatively forms a friendship with a new student, Jean Bonnet (Raphael Fejtö). Julien slowly comes to the realization that Jean is Jewish, especially after the school’s headmaster, Father Jean (Philippe Morier-Genoud), asks him to be particularly nice to the new student. At the time, Julien doesn’t know exactly what “Jewish” means; his older brother explains that a Jew is someone who doesn’t eat pork, a statement that is technically right, but falls far short of being a genuine explanation.

Throughout the film, Malle balances both the difficulties of adolescence (note how cruel the boys often are to each other) and the looming specter of the world at war just outside the bubble of childhood. He presents us with an interstitial character named Joseph (François Négret), an older boy with one lame leg who works at the school and is constantly harassed by the students, who are always looking to exploit a weakness. Joseph is a difficult character, one with whom we sympathize despite some of his less-than-ideal decisions (such as selling goods on the black market and stealing from the school). In the film’s third act, he makes a particularly fateful decision, one that speaks volumes about the locus of evil and why an event as world-shattering as the Holocaust could have possibly taken place in the rational and technologically sophisticated 20th century.

Like many of Malle’s films, Au revoir les enfants is essentially a coming-of-age story, with Julien’s blissful childhood being slowly scraped away until that awful final scene in which any sense of innocence is torn from him, largely because of a single, ill-advised glance. It is not incidental that the film is bookended with Julien’s eyes filled with tears. In the first scene he is at the train station weeping childishly in his mother’s arms because he doesn’t want to leave her and go back to school. In the last scene, his eyes well up as he watches children being led away by the Gestapo, a horrible moment that is truly worth all the tears in the world.

Au revoir les enfants Criterion Collection DVD
3 Films by Louis MalleAu revoir les enfants is available individually or as part of the Criterion Collection’s four-disc box set “3 Films by Louis Malle,” which also includes Murmur of the Heart and Lacombe, Lucien along with a fourth disc of supplementary materials.
Aspect Ratio1.66:1
AudioFrench Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural
  • Teaser trailer
  • Original theatrical trailer
  • Essays by Philip Kemp and Francis J. Murphy

    Supplementary disc includes:

  • New interviews with actor Candice Bergen and biographer Pierre Billard
  • Excerpts from a French TV program featuring the director on the sets of Murmur of the Heart and Lacombe, Lucien
  • Audio interviews with Louis Malle from 1974, 1988, and 1990
  • The Immigrant, Charlie Chaplin’s 1917 short comedy
  • A profile of the provocative character of Joseph from Au revoir les enfants, created by filmmaker Guy Magen in 2005
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    SRP$29.95 (disc) / $79.95 (box set)
    Release DateMarch 28, 2006

    All three films in the box set are presented in their original 1.66:1 aspect ratio in excellent new high-definition transfers, two of which were supervised by the original cinematographers. The transfer for Murmur of the Heart, which was supervised by cinematographer Ricardo Aronovich, was taken from both the 35mm interpositive and internegative; the transfer for Lacombe, Lucien was taken from a 35mm interpositive; and the transfer for Au revoir les enfants, which was supervised by cinematographer Renato Berta, was taken from the original camera negative. The images on all three films were color corrected and then digitally restored, resulting in excellent picture quality that makes them look virtually brand-new. The film-like image is strong and well-detailed on each disc, with natural color and good black levels. Of the three, Au revoir les enfants probably looks the best because it is the newest and the source of its transfer was the original negative.

    All three films are presented with monaural soundtracks transferred at 24-bit from the 35mm magnetic track and digitally restored. All three are strong and crystal clear throughout.

    Au revoir les enfants is part of a four-disc box set that includes two other of Louis Malle’s films, Murmur of the Heart (1971) and Lacombe, Lucien (1974), all of which share a coming-of-age theme. The only supplements included on the Au revoir les enfants disc are a teaser trailer, an original theatrical trailer (both in anamorphic widescreen), and two essays in the insert booklet, one about the film by critic Philip Kemp and another by French historian Francis J. Murphy that discusses the life of Père Jacques, the man on whom Malle based the character of Père Jean.

    The box set contains a fourth disc with an impressive array of supplements for all the films in the set. First of, there are two excellent new video interviews, one with actor Candice Bergen who was married to Malle from 1980 until his death in 1995, and another with Malle biographer Pierre Billard. Bergen talks openly and candidly about Malle’s life and work and is able to offer a poignant inside view to his art. Billard’s 30-minute interview is more general, touching primarily on the important events in Malle’s life and how he used them when making his films.

    Also included on the disc are excerpts from a French television program that feature interviews with Malle and footage of him working on the sets of Murmur of the Heart and Lacombe, Lucien. Malle also appears in three audio interviews: two of them are special Q&A sessions at the National Film Theatre in London (in 1974 and 1990) and one is from 1988 where he spoke at the American Film Institute.

    The disc also features The Immigrant, Charlie Chaplin’s 1917 two-reeler comedy that appears prominently in Au revoir les enfants. The transfer quality is quite good, with only a few brief rough spots to remind us that the film is nearly 90 years old (although the recreated intertitles, which look like they were done on an Apple II circa 1985, look awful). (On a side note, the inclusion of The Immigrant makes one long for a Criterion-worthy box set of Chaplin’s early short films, since the currently available DVDs all have problems of varying degrees.) Lastly, the supplements disc has a five-minute “character study” of Joseph from Au revoir les enfants, created by filmmaker and University of Paris professor Guy Magen in 2005.

    Copyright ©2006 James Kendrick

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    Overall Rating: (4)

    James Kendrick

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