Steeped in melancholic beauty

au-revoir-les-enfants

I (Plot/Themes)

“Goodbye Children, I’ll see you soon”

A kid pushes you as you attempt to run toward the swing set, minor scuffles in the hall way, cliques of friends run rampant through the school grounds, in a word naive. The process of growing from a child into a young man is a delicate dance masked by testosterone induced ‘tough guy’ facades. Protection. The idea of hidden depths runs rampant through the corners of the characters for the film for this month, the ways in which young children (boys in the context of this film) hide their true feelings in order to fit in and make a name or themselves, brilliantly mirrors the ways in which the Jewish youth of WWII Europe hid their identity. Having very little idea as to why they were in danger, they went under different names only cautiously accepting any friendly gesture extended. I can only imagine the thoughts darting through their minds at any give moment, not only are they going through the time in their lives where personality development is crucial, they are forced to hide their true identity as young Jewish children.

The power of Malle’s film Au Revoir Les Enfants (1987) lies not only in the ways in which he masterfully portrays this inner turmoil through the character of Jean Bonnet/Kippelstein (Raphael Fejtö), but also through the brilliant ‘lead’ character of Julien Quentin (Gaspard Manesse) whose performance of an even further confused child in inopportune times lent itself brilliantly in extracting sympathies from the viewer. Being a semi-autobiographical film, Julien is the manifestation of Malle himself (in a similar way as Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud) was a surrogate Truffaut) however even if I had no prior knowledge of this fact, Malle’s affection for the character comes through in the loving, yet slightly self-effacing (wetting the bed etc.) writing and direction of the character. In a word, human, Julien is a perfectly flawed character. Julien is obviously a very sensitive, intelligent and caring character and yet in the world in which he lives forces him to mask his true nature through a gruff exterior, often vehemently delivering lines such as “I don’t give a damn about father and I hate you” as he parts with his mother and upon first meeting Bonnet “My name is Julien Quentin, mess with me and you’ll be sorry.”

Even though Julien as well as many of the other youths of the film seem rather malicious, often engaging in rather violent ‘play,’ as a relationship between Julien and Bonnet blossoms we see a whole different side to the characters, while they still put up a front, they start to enjoy themselves, playing piano together, reading together etc, although it wouldn’t have been nearly as effectively portrayed if it weren’t for the reluctance of their friendship in the beginning, it is at this moment that Malle’s film really comes to life. For a little while the viewer just becomes so wrapped up in the exquisite friendship that we forget the setting of the film, WWII occupied France, and the fact that one of our main characters is in real danger simply for his heritage.

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“Are there wolves in these woods?”

The ways in which the war is brought up through out the film are also really interesting. It was brought up mostly in the ways that a child would be exposed to the concepts. For the most part it was brought up through overheard discussion or the viewer/characters witnessing an incident, also the ways in which these are shown is through a childlike naïveté. This is of course done skillfully, while it is obvious what is going on and that Malle himself and some of the characters know what’s going on, the viewer is only shown the concept of war seeming through eyes of our protagonists.

A complex and intriguing example of this being when Julien, his brother, mother, and Bonnet are in a French restaurant and members of Petain’s French ‘collaborators’ come in and begin to harass an elderly Jewish customer. This moment of the film is especially interesting because we watch alongside the boys as the different attitudes of the French people are voiced in protest as well as celebration of the actions of these men. This was a brilliantly executed technique; through this one scene the diverse attitudes of the French people become evident to the viewer and confusing evident to our younger characters.

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However, the most eloquent yet disturbing examples of this are in the last 10 or so minutes of the film. As a teacher is telling the children about the current state of the war, they mock the idea of receiving false information singing “the French radio tells German lies,” only to be interrupted quickly by an inspection by German troops. As the children and teachers (and myself) watch stunned and helpless as the Germans begin their search for the child with the unfamiliar surname of Kippelstein there is a certain stillness in the room, it is clear that the severity of the situation has come full front to the children. As Jean is found out the tension in the room breaks only slightly, as he reaches out to the hands of his friends and as he shakes the hands of each of them, you can see it in their face that up until this moment war, the holocaust, were all merely abstractions. Now as we watch Julien confused and sorrowfully walking, we see the Judas of the situation as Joseph creeps from behind a wall, patting a German on the back, reassuring him “he’s a friend.” It’s at this moment that the severity of the situation, as well as a good amount of guilt hit Julien.

While the previous examples are extremely powerful, it’s also the interactions with the Germans that haunt me, the ways in which they just walked in with stern cold demeanor and the ways that they treated the children. One of the most tense examples being when Julien is in the infirmary and after stating that he hadn’t seen anything, the Germans approach him and ask him to pull down his pants quickly, degrading and harsh. Obviously the most tremendous example being the final scene of the film where the leader of the German group addresses the whole group of boys, “Are you sure there aren’t any more Jews among you?” This scene which ends in the 3 Jewish boys, Jean included, and their would be savior Father Jean (Philippe Morier-Genoud) are led out the door. As they are led past the other boys the emotion wells up in the crowd and all the boys ring out a sorrowful goodbye, to which he replies “Goodbye Children,” which he follows up with a haunting, “I’ll see you soon”

II (Technical Aspects)

As far as the technical aspects of the film, it’s a masterfully executed work of art. Malle’s subtle direction and compositions, well executed by cinematographer Renato Berta, exceeded my expectations and created a perfect atmosphere for the story being told. In particular there were a few specific elements that completely made the film, the colors and design through which the atmosphere was set, the different types of shots utilized throughout, and the ways in which Bonnet was in many ways (technically) segregated from the rest of the children.

The first aspect to be discussed is the colors etc, from the minute the film abruptly begins, opening to the whistle of a train in station, the color spectrum is set, for this film about a very depressing time and place, Malle chose to utilize an exaggeratedly drab scheme. Through this the theme of the film was set, this was to be a very serious and relatively dark film. All of the colors throughout the film seem to be faded or through a foggy filter which accentuated the dreary reality of the setting. However, while this may seem like a rather dull technique the effect was the exact opposite, through this design choice there was a decidedly beautiful melancholy draped over the film, and it only proved as a contrasting background, which highlighted the joy that Julien and Bonnet experienced with each other.

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Another interesting technical aspect in the ways in which the camera in utilized as the eye of the viewer, for myself I really enjoy a film with beautiful cinematography, and while it was understated at many times, I found that this film was full of interesting and beautiful camera work. This film is filled with many static shots, some pans, a healthy dose of over the shoulder and POV shots, all of which were used effectively to bring the viewer into the mindset of out heroes. In the beginning sequence as the opening credits roll we watch out the train car window exactly as Julien was, this was also inter-cut with shots of his face placed against the glass with a rather discontent and frustrated look upon his face, for me this was the moment that I found myself endeared to this character. I also found myself enraptured in the scene where he was running from his opponents in the woods during a treasure hunt. For me this was one of the most exquisite scenes of the film, and I couldn’t help but find another connection to Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, as he was running (as was the case for Antoine Doinel) I got the impression this was much more than running from his ensuing captures, this was a more cathartic run, a run from something within himself.

title Louis Malle Au revoir les enfants Criterion DVD

The final of the technical aspects to be broached is the ways in which Bonnet was segregated and given his own unspoken voiceover to go with his relatively silent back story. The two scenes in particular where this seems to be especially relevant are the first scene where he is introduced and the scene where all of the children are singing with the piano teacher (Mlle Davenne (Irène Jacob)) in the chapel as Bonnet sits in the corner out of everyone’s sight, save Julien. The first example mentioned is the most striking for me, and it came in the form of a medium over the shoulder shot pointed upward as Bonnet stairs at the exaggerated religious imagery on the wall. Through this shot the viewer gets a deep impression of displacement, and it becomes immediately apparent that this character has been forced into a foreign environment by intense extenuating circumstances of war and genocide.

The beauty of this shot, as well as the allusion, is continued in the other aforementioned shot, where it almost seems as if while he is still displaced and in a foreign environment he now has an accomplice in Julien who vouched for his absence, even though he was the only one who knew that Bonnet was secretly watching from the wings. In this scene we watch as Bonnet enters from a different side entrance than the other boys and slightly before them, he seems mesmerized by his surroundings and yet more comforted than before, and as the other children enter stage right, he fades into the backdrop merely a voyeur, never to fully fit in these surroundings.

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III (Concluding Remarks)

In the end, I’ve found this a rather difficult essay to compose for the intense personal nature of the film and the ways in which it touched, as well as the fact that this rich film provides the viewer with entirely to much to discuss in one reasonably sized essay. Going into the viewing of this film I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, based on what I’ve known of Malle’s work, he has a very diverse canon of which I have only watched Elevator to the Gallows (1958). The aforementioned film being one of the most enjoyable noir films I’ve seen was what drove me to choose this film for my month and while it was an entirely different film, I was not disappointed. This film only furthered my interest in Malle as a well-versed and interesting director.

IV (Further Reading i.e. the other Cineastes)

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While this is my take on this film, I am positive that there are aspects of the film that I didn’t discuss and maybe things I didn’t even think about, and thus this is why The Cineaste group exists, and as I am the host here are all of the other essays on this months film, ENJOY! (and keep checking back because these will be trickling in as the next week or so goes on and I will be updating the list as it grows)

Neil Alcock @ The Incredible Sui

Adam Batty @ Hope Lie

Adam Cook @ The Bronz

Crap Monster @ YGG’noise

Jack McLain @ The Third Act

Kurt Walker @ Walking in the Cinem

Josh Wiebe @ Octopus Cinem

fin

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