Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Reeling Backward: "Au Revoir les enfants"

"Au Revoir les enfants" is one of those modern foreign films that I'd been aware of since it came out in 1987, but never got around to seeing. Jay Boyar, the critic who I grew up reading in the Orlando Sentinel, often cited it as his favorite film of all time. I can see why.

This masterpiece -- for that's what it is -- by the great French director Louis Malle tells the story of two boys of about 13 years at a boarding school during World War II. One is an upper-class boy, smart and self-centered. The other is a Jew hiding out from the Nazis under an assumed identity.

Most of the boys at the school come from rich families, and resent being sent out of Paris by their parents to the squalid school run by clergymen. They delight in trading sexual insults and tormenting Joseph, the poor boy who works in the kitchen and dabbles in black market trade with the schoolboys.

Julien is the top student in his class, very bright and inherently decent, but plagued by the self-doubts and the tendency toward bravado of boys that age. "Intelligent, but pretentious" the teacher writes on his essay, seemingly describing the boy himself.

Into this jungle of adolescent angst enters Bonnet, a new student who's at least as smart as Julien, but more considerate. He can even play the piano well for the pretty female teacher who is the object of lust for every male in the school (played by a very young Irene Jacob).

Julien and Bonnet start out as antagonists, but slowly, gradually form a bond that's irrevocable. Malle (who also wrote the screenplay) perfectly captures the nature of boyhood friendship -- the mix of competition, put-downs and other devices they use to hide any notion of sensitivity, and hence (in their minds) weakness. At one point, they have a knock-down fight in the schoolyard, and a little while later Julien is inviting Bonnet, who is poor, to have dinner with his visiting mother. One suspects that the fight was merely cover for an overt act of kindness.

The Nazi machine eventually descends on the school, setting the boys at odds and causing fear to race through the faculty.

"Les Enfants" was nominated for two Oscars, Best Foreign Language Film and Best Original Screenplay. Beyond a moving drama, it's a spot-on document of occupied France and the relationship between boys on the verge of becoming men.

I do admit that the film seems a little dated today, if only because there have subsequently been so many movies to explore the Holocaust from the perspective of children, or the plight of Jews hiding out from the Nazis. Just within the last few months, I've seen "The Piano" (again) and "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas." So watching "Les Enfants" right after, I observed the strings of similar themes being plucked again. Of course, Malle's film predated those others by 15 or 20 years, so the criticism is muted by circumstance.

In looking up their resumes on, I was disappointed to learn that the two actors who did such wonderful jobs as Julien and Bonnet, Gaspard Manesse and Raphel Fejito, essentially ended their performing careers with this film.

I hope people have been enjoying the "Reeling Backward" feature -- I've tried to do at least one a week. I'm watching a lot of old movies these days (I also saw "On Golden Pond" and "Run Silent, Run Deep" over the weekend), so there's plenty of source material to choose from. No matter how many movies you watch, there are always hundreds or thousands more to be seen.

The cinematic past is like a treasure chest that never empties.

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