Thursday 13 December 2007

Au Revoir, Les Enfants (1987) Louis Malle

I've now seen over a third of Louis Malle's films, this being the twelfth of 33, and it seems to be regarded as his best. What I've seen so far has been massively variable, from what seemed to be stunningly average films like Crackers and A Very Private Affair, to say nothing of reality documentaries that didn't seem to gel like Place de la république, up to true classics like Lacombe Lucien and especially Elevator to the Gallows.

As you'd expect from the title, it's a story about children, which is promising given the penchant for child characterisation that Malle showed in Zazie dans le métro, Lacombe Lucien and especially Murmur of the Heart. It's also semi-autobiographical, which adds even more depth. The character based on Malle himself is the lead, Julien Quentin, who is packed off at the beginning of the film to a convent school, St John of the Cross. We're in war time so maybe a convent school is the best place to be, but the air raids apply here too.

Much of the film centres around the relationship of Julien Quentin to a new arrival in school, Jean Bonnet. Initially it's antagonistic on the level of any reaction to a new arrival, but gradually they become closer. Part of it has to do with things they have in common, like reading and being smart and though shared adventures, but much of it is through a shared secret after Julien discovers Jean's real name and the fact that he's really Jewish.

Mostly though, this isn't about plot. The details of it are there not as entities in themselves but as points in the development of the characters and it's the characters that matter. The bigger story is one that isn't really told, at least not specifically. It's the bigger story of the war, and has one angle that seemed a little surprising to me. The Germans are certainly the enemy generally, with the heroes happy to give them bad directions, hide Jews and work for the resistance, but Malle often depicts German soldiers as good guys individually. His true vitriol is reserved for French collaborators, either those deliberately working for the Germans or those who do so in moments of weakness.

As much as this film is about the big picture, there are some truly blistering scenes that can't help but hit very hard indeed. The first is a happy one, watching the faces of the entire school watch Charlie Chaplin in The Immigrant. The second is when they come for Jean, which is heartbreaking. The third is the finale, which is as inevitable as it is full of suspense. All three really pull at the heartstrings. No wonder that Louis Malle himself was in tears at the film's premiere in 1987.

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