“Au revoir les enfants”, which means “Goodbye Children”, is a 1987 Oscar nominated drama from French filmmaker Louis Malle. This autobiographical film is unquestionably Malle’s most personal project and its story is taken from actual events of his childhood. He wrote, produced, and directed this stirring film that grounds its storytelling in authenticity and in pure earned emotion.
The film is set in 1944 and almost all of it takes place at a Catholic boarding school in Nazi-occupied France. Children are sent to the school by wealthy parents in hopes of protecting them from the dangers of the war. One such student is young Julien (Gaspard Manesse). He is respected by the other kids but he’s still a bit of an outsider. He would prefer to read novels and learn piano rather than the usual horseplay the boys engage in. He’s tough and strong-minded but we also see a tender and somber side to him as well. He doesn’t like being away from home and he never seems completely happy at school.
Things at the school change when three new students are introduced. One is Jean Bonnet (Raphaël Fejtö) a quiet and unassuming boy who is quickly assimilated into the school’s routine. Jean is teased and picked on, sometimes by Julien, but he soon finds his own small place to fit in. Over time Julien becomes fascinated with Jean due to his talents in math and music. Julien is also curious after noticing several differences in how Jean is treated by the school’s headmaster and teachers. Despite some contentious early dealings, the two boys develop a respect and friendship which makes the film’s later turns all the more crushing and heartbreaking.
There are several things that stand out about Malle’s technique. First off he’s not the least bit interested in the normal Hollywood-style melodrama or cliches. He doesn’t milk emotion or stage scenes in ways that feel false. Instead he puts great emphasis on the natural flow of school life in its purest form. You get a sense that he is recollecting and expressing things to his audience. These kids look, feel, and act like kids both through their virtue and their degeneracy. Malle wants us to believe what we are seeing because it’s true and personal to him.
Another interesting thing is how the war quietly lingers in the distance for most of the film. It rarely makes its presence known other than through the occasional air raid sirens which the children hardly take seriously. But it is definitely there and we get a handful of strategic scenes that serve as a reminder. And as the film moves forward the boys are faced with several war-related moral quandaries that reveal the darker and more upsetting side of their world. It is through these moments that we the audience fully realize the loss of innocence particularly with young Julien.
It’s impossible to watch “Au revoir les enfants” without being deeply moved by its poignant story and obvious personal touch from Louis Malle. It’s a meticulously crafted film that builds up our emotional connection to the characters and then crushes them on the rocks of cold reality. The movie looks at the time and events through the eyes of these boys and it never loses that point-of-view which is vital to the story’s power. It’s such an amazing movie and a beautiful piece of film history.