DVD Review Of Au Revoir Les Enfants
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 12/5/07
In 1987, Louis Malle, after a run of American produced films that worked (My Dinner With Andre, Atlantic City) and failed (Pretty Baby, Crackers), decided to return to his roots and write and produce a small budget French film, Au Revoir Les Enfants (Goodbye, Children) about a supposedly true experience he had as a child, in Vichy France, toward the end of World War Two, at a privileged French boarding school. Although Malle has always claimed the incident to be true, despite changing details of it in retellings, and dramatically for the screen, while others have claimed he was simply telling a good story, neither claim’s veracity nor lack has a thing to do with whether or not the story and film work as stand alone works of art. They do, but not nearly as well as the film’s greatest champions insist.
The tale is rather simple- in the winter of 1943-44 (December and January) the Malle stand in character, a twelve year old boy, befriends one of four Jewish boys that a Roman Catholic headmaster allows to stay at the private school, to save their lives. Their friendship is slow but realistic in budding, but then the Gestapo comes to the school, rounds up the Jewish boys- save one who escapes, and the headmaster, Father Jean (Philippe Morier-Genoud), and the final shot is of the Malle stand-in watching his friend, and the others, being carted off to the death camps, as the school is closed, and Malle, in voiceover, reveals their fates.
Those are the basics, now on to the particulars. The visuals of the film, by cinematographer Renato Berta, are excellent. One gets a real sense of place, especially in night scenes, when the two boys- the Malle stand in, Julien Quentin (Gaspard Manesse, who looks remarkably like a young John Brisby, the upper crust boy from Michael Apted’s The Up Series documentaries)- a pensive mama’s boy, and the Jewish boy, Jean Bonnet née Kippelstein (Raphaël Fejtö), get lost in the woods. The score is fine- understated and not too melodramatic, and the acting is superb, especially in the younger boys, who were not trained actors. This lack of training heightens the fear and pensiveness that such a time likely left on most surviving children. The problem lies in Malle’s script. As a ‘coming of age’ film, it works- and feels a bit like the film The Cider House Rules, in look, tone, and pacing. As a ‘Holocaust’ film, it is more akin to subtler political works, like Roman Polanski’s The Pianist, and also succeeds, as it mutes overt ideology to focus on character and ‘moments.’ But it works on those levels alone. There is something that does not cohere the two as well. Yes, the themes of guilt, childhood cruelty, betrayal, nationalism, social class warfare, and religion, all get their ‘moments,’ as well, but they seem mostly obligatory- despite their good presentation, therefore come and go with little dramatic nor emotional impact.
It is smaller, less obvious, things in the film, that make it work at all, for despite the good acting, and the detailed story, the film falls flat at times. At other times, it grabs at the viewer. As example, it is a crippled boy, Joseph (François Négret), that the other boys mock and scorn, who works in the kitchen and deals on the Black Market, who turns in the headmaster and Jewish boys. Why? Because he ended up taking the blame for the thievery at the school, rather than the school’s drunken old female cook Madame Perrin (Jacqueline Paris). This is an explicable reaction from a boy unaware of the depth of his actions’ evil. All he wanted was vengeance on the man- the headmaster, whom he felt sold him out. In doing so, he became an accomplice to murder. Unfortunately, these moments are not the bulk of the film, and it is not until the last twenty minutes or so, when the Gestapo comes calling, that the film really grabs ahold of the viewer, as the last scene does pack a great punch, even if it is telegraphed, for it does not strain one’s kitsch tolerance nor facial tissue supply.
Before that, however, the school and its students could be the very one from the Harry Potter series of children’s films, or even from François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows. The scenes they watch from a Charlie Chaplin short, The Immigrant, not only act as a contrast to the situation at hand- a nation occupied, but the digressive moment in the film has its antecedents in many other films on war and/or coming of age tales. There are also nice moments of bonding, when the two boys freestyle some jazz piano as the rest of the school goes to the air raid shelter, and there are a few good scenes between them and the beautiful piano teacher, Davenne (Irène Jacob, in her screen debut), but much of the rest of the film has trite, predictable, and unneeded scenes of bullying, kids smoking behind buildings, razzing one another, etc. Yes, this has occurred from time immemorial, and flavors the film with a sense of banal realism- but these things could have been elicited in a 90 second montage, thus reducing the film from its 101 minute running time to about 80 minutes, a good quarter of which would have been the final meaty part.
Likely this was not done because Malle was trying to hagiographize his youth, and was not objective enough about the dramatic structural flaws in the screenplay. He likely felt that the suffusion of details- like Quentin’s bedwetting, or the rest of the dormitory’s shared masturbations of 1001 Arabian Nights, would carry the film through to its powerful end. And it does, if limpingly, but not at the grand trot nor gallop of a great film. The fact that, in the penultimate scenes, it is an incidental look that Quentin shoots at his friend, Bonnet, that gives him away to the Gestapo inquisitor, is a great touch, but a savvy viewer is left wishing the rest of the film had been so well plotted.
This lack, in this personal film, contrasts greatly with Malle’s masterpiece, My Dinner With Andre, which is a film that is 98% set in a restaurant, with two old friends conversing. There, every word that is uttered has heft, and a viewer is left with far greater imagery burnt into their memories than in your typical special effects film. Perhaps not coincidentally, one of the film’s best scenes, prior to the ending, also is set in a restaurant, where, after Julien’s and Jean’s ‘lost in the woods’ incident, and the two of them physically scrapping, Julien’s mother (Francine Racette) takes the two of them, and his older brother François (Stanislas Carré de Malberg)- who also goes to the boarding school and delights in giving wrong directions to German soldiers, to a fancy restaurant. There, they see some Vichy officers try to toss an old Jew out on the street, over the objections of a waiter. What is interesting is that Malle does not let the scene just play out as an ode to Anti-Semitism, the way a bad filmmaker like Steven Spielberg would. No, he spikes the scene and subverts any potential didacticism by having the German officers, at a nearby table, actually threaten and toss out the Vichy thugs, thereby allowing the old Jew to finish his meal in peace. Malle’s political intent is clear- invaders are bad enough, but collaborators are the real evil in such a time and situation. The best film to ever deal with this was Ingmar Bergman’s Shame (Skammen), but that was in a wholly fictive setting. Malle’s film makes its point well, but stings for its historic reality. Were more scenes in the film filled with those sorts of subtle, but effective moments, the film’s pacing would be picked up, for ‘pacing’ in a film can be subjective. It’s not the actual unfolding of events in real screen time that matters most, but the number of memorable moments that occur in a film.
The DVD, from The Criterion Collection, is part of the collection 3 Films By Louis Malle, along with Murmur Of The Heart (Le Souffle Au Coeur) and Lacombe, Lucien. The film is in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio, and is very clean, and almost entirely free of blemishes. There is no audio commentary, only a theatrical and teaser trailer. There are insert essays by film critic Philip Kemp and historian Francis J. Murphy. There is a fourth bonus disk with supplements, such as interviews with Malle’s wife, actress Candice Bergen, and Malle’s biographer, the film critic Pierre Billard. There are also excerpts from a French tv program on the two other films, and filmmaker Guy Magen’s video character study of the traitorous Joseph from this film. There are also three audio interviews with Malle from 1974, 1988, and 1990. The final extra is Charlie Chaplin’s 1917 comedy classic, The Immigrant, which is seen within Au Revoir Les Enfants. Unfortunately, having seen many versions of that silent comedy classic, the musical arrangement for this version is atrocious and too overstated.
Another problem with the film is the way that the Jewish boy, Bonnet, is treated at the school. Not by the other boys, who call him the obvious- ‘Easter Bonnet’, but by the sometimes stolid priests who run the school. After all, they know he is Jewish, yet do not assimilate him. They refuse him Communion, let him not eat pork, abstain from Catholic vespers, and let him worship in his dormitory at night, instead of in private. Yes, this may have been true in real life, but it gives away the ending too early. Would not the priests have told the boy he needs to conform to avoid death, even if that means some religious compromise on both sides?
Overall, while Au Revoir Les Enfants is a good film, indeed, arguably a very good film, it is too straightforward, one dimensional, and not that daring, to come close to true greatness. Yet, mere excellence in a film that could be more is often more frustrating than watching a piece of garbage, because there are moments when one can say, ‘If the director only did this,’ ‘If the screenwriter only did that,’ etc. Yes, the film, like almost all Holocaust films, did well at awards time, getting two Academy Award nominations for Best Foreign Language film and Best original screenplay, it won the Golden Lion award at the 1987 Venice Film Festival, and swept up seven awards at the César Awards- France’s Oscars, including Best Director, Best Film and Best Writing, among other honors, but honors do not make up for the ‘could’a, should’a, would’a’ feeling one is left with after a film like this. And, unlike Chinese food, such leftover pangs do not demand a second helping. Thus, Malle’s film is what it is, a good- but not great, meal, served at a restaurant (Holocaust art) that one should only eat at sparingly, so whatever pungency it packs stays on the tongue longer, after its real flavor has faded, and the remembered taste seems all the more delicious.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Blogcritics website.]
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