Au revoir les enfants (1987)

“Goodbye, children. I’ll see you soon.”

‘Au revoir les enfants’, directed by Louis Malle in 1987, is a French drama set during the Nazi occupation. Julien, played by Gaspard Manesse, is a pupil at a Carmelite boarding school who puts on a front of being tough but throughout the film seems vulnerable, perplexed by the events of the world around him. A new student, Jean Bonnet, played by Raphaël Fejtö, occupies the bed next to his and, in time, Julien discovers that Jean is really a Jew who has been hidden by the headteacher of the school, Père Jean. Julien develops a friendship with Jean as he continues to glean more information about the refugee’s life, but the Nazi’s and the collaborators close in. It’s a film that manages to be simultaneously poignant and nostalgic but dark and ominous. It’s full of sequences that are wonderfully shot, and really condense the lives of young people, summing up their imagination. A highlight of the film for me was the moment when Jean and Julien bond in the woods of Fontainebleau, hunting for treasure. It’s a set of scenes films at the level of the children, from their perspectives and offers a brief insight (as it was drawn from the real experiences of the director) into how the lives of some carried on during the war, but all the time the presence of the Germans were a threat. I’ve seen a number of movies set in French schools recently, and each offers a different perspective on the wider world outside the confines of the school walls. Malle’s movie is sombre and sobering, but holds a kernel of optimism as, in the final scene, the children of the school defy the Nazi’s by praising the heroic priest as he’s taken away.

Would I recommend it? Yes – it’s a deeply moving film. It could be watched in a double bill with a film like ‘Zero for Conduct’, but instead I’d suggest ‘The Sorrow and the Pity’ for a documentary insight into the time the film is set in.

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