Julien (Gaspard Manesse) has a deep-felt affection for his mother (see Malle's "Murmur of the Heart" for more on this) but he understands he will be much safer at the French boarding school in the countryside. The school, run by priests, provides a safe haven for the children of well-off families during World War II. Returning from Christmas break, the new year is uneventful for a while. Julien is a bright student and the ring leader for a bunch of boys. Julien trades items with Joseph, a poor boy who works in the kitchen, more out of amusement than anything else, but also to supplement the meager diet served by the priests. One day, a new student arrives; Jean Bonnet (Raphael Fejto), a quiet boy the other kids make fun of: "Look at Easter Bonnet." Julien also begins to notice things about the new kid; he doesn't participate in the Catholic prayers the father's lead, he doesn't eat certain things, and one night, Julien wakes up to find Jean praying over some candles. Then, Julien's attitude changes and he forms an uneasy friendship with Jean.
Made in 1987, more than forty years after the events depicted, Julien is a thinly disguised autobiographical version of the director, as he lives a real life event from Malle's childhood. You might expect such a film to be filled with saccharin and sugar, full of fond reminiscences from his childhood. But the film is very astute at depicting the childhood as an observer might see it. We watch Julien observe things, react to things, but he is very adult for his age, giving us an adult view of the events. Because we are watching his reactions, we see his feelings, which are emotional but reserved. It is similar to a television show with a laugh track, the fake laughter cueing us to laugh. When the television show doesn't have a laugh track, they have to work harder to make us laugh. When we are watching the events unfold through Julien's eyes, Malle has to work harder to make adults feel for the characters. Because this works, every emotion is more resonant and the film is much more powerful.
Life in the school is depicted in such a vivid fashion, it instantly becomes clear someone really lived through this period, this tale is autobiographical. The boys live in an old monastery, with very little heat. Yet, they don't seem to notice the problem much. They have endured it for so long and have become used to it, playing outside in the frigid weather, wearing shorts and coats. The classes are also very different from what we are used to today; the teachers are strict and the children tend to learn despite the circumstances of their life. Even though these children are from rich families, living in this boarding school, and they are well-cared for, they still have worries. The war is ever present. Some of the students have lost brothers, father, uncles and more. They are better off than many of their countrymen, but that doesn't mean they are comfortable.
As the relationship between Julien and Jean grows and changes, their friendship becomes deeper. Julien is like most boys his age, anytime someone new enters the picture, they have to prove they can fit in. Jean doesn't really fit in, or for that matter, really try to. Yet, every time Julien is surrounded by a group of friends, Jean seems to long for the same camaraderie. He is better in most subjects than Jean and he seems to get the preferential treatment Julien once received. But as Julien realizes Jean is different, and begins to piece together why, he realizes Jean will never completely fit in and has to help him through this ordeal. They become friends. Thankfully, Malle also shows a lot of restraint in this area. The friendship is a gradual thing. It doesn't happen immediately, or completely, taking time to develop.
Because the film is set in the winter of 1944, the threat of German soldiers is constant. These soldiers have occupied the small town, changing everything about the people's lives. Yet, Malle doesn't paint them as the completely evil men we have come to associate with Hitler's persona. Yes, there is always a threat, but some of their human qualities are displayed. When Julien and Jean get lost in the forest, German soldiers find them and return them to the school. One of the teachers makes a remark about the "filthy" German soldiers. The soldier responds he would like the blanket the "filthy" Germans used to keep the children warm during the ride back. During a parent visit, Julien's mother visits and takes them to a restaurant. At the restaurant a French Collaborator gives a Jewish customer a hard time. A table of German soldiers notices this and chastises the French Collaborator, humiliating him, leaving the Jewish customer to reflect in silence. The German Soldiers acted out of irritation at having their dinner interrupted, but it is interesting to watch them take the frustration out on the right person. It would have been extremely easy to paint the German soldiers as the villains we know they were. This story is told through Julien's eyes. And at the time, he wouldn't have known the full extent of the atrocities inflicted by the German army. Therefore, Malle makes some of these men seem human, giving the entire film another layer of depth. Also, during the final moments, when the Gestapo arrives at the school to investigate claims of Jewish students, their leader seems to be fairly kind and nurturing, even towards the Jewish students he uncovers. Of course, this makes him all the more monstrous. We don't expect him to take one of the children and start reading him a bedtime story. We know the fate of these children. And it is chilling. We don't really need to know what happened to them, but when Malle provides voice over narrating what happened to Jean and the other Jewish students hiding in the boarding school, we learn their fate and it causes great sadness.
All of these different layers help to make the story seem more realistic. The boarding school is run by Pere Jean (Philippe Morier-Genoud), a strict missionary who puts up with little foolishness. But after Jean's arrival, Julien witnesses a different side of the headmaster. The fact that this Catholic priest would help Jewish children hide in his boarding school, putting him and the school at risk, is a truly courageous thing. This is yet another layer, another detail, giving the film great depth. Because no one is completely innocent, or completely bad, everyone is involved in the tale of wartime survival.
"Au Revoir, Les Enfants" is a heartfelt, masterful film everyone should witness for themselves. Description doesn't do it justice.
Malle also worked in American film, creating some interesting stories, the best of which is "Atlantic City" starring Burt Lancaster and Susan Sarandon in an early role.
If you haven't experienced the work of Louis Malle, now is the time. "Elevator to the Gallows", an early Malle film, was also just released by Criterion. Check it out.