A small scale betrayal at a Catholic boarding school for boys leads to a large scale catastrophe when set against the backdrop of Nazi-occupied France in Louis Malle’s autobiographical “reinvention of the past,” Au Revoir, Les Enfants.
As a helpless child unable to change the course of events or comprehend the complexities of WWII upon discovering that his new friend Jean is in fact one of three Jewish students being hidden in plain sight by priests, the only thing that Malle’s onscreen alter ego Julien can do is watch.
And fittingly, in addition to the film’s emotionally haunting final scene that recreates the tragic moment that “may well have determined [Malle’s] vocation as a filmmaker,” it’s the isolated images of students witnessing events they don’t quite understand while framed by windows, doors and hallways from Au Revoir, which were indelibly seared into my brain during my first screening of it as a child.
Similar to the way that active listening is the most important skill for an aspiring screenwriter to master, the power of observation – particularly with regard to human behavior – is paramount for filmmakers and as Malle proves with Les Enfants, it’s at its peak when we’re children because it’s essentially all we have.
Yet instead of manifesting horror into tattle-telling the way we would when we were little or merely putting away childish things when we came of age, as one of the most acclaimed French auteurs of his era, Louis Malle knew that film was the ideal medium to use for show and tell.
Though it’s first and foremost a tale of friendship, in his deceptively simple 1987 masterpiece Malle sublimated and transformed the events of his childhood into a true work of art.
Subtly addressing the disconnect between the ethical and moral lessons of honesty and the Golden Rule which we’re taught as children vs. the contradictory way the world operates, Au Revoir, Les Enfants marks Malle’s heartfelt and deeply personal return to a more intimate style of filmmaking after some disappointing Hollywood productions.
Supervised by cinematographer Renato Berta, Au Revoir’s gorgeous digital transfer to Criterion Collection Blu-ray heightens the clarity throughout but the true high definition standout of the disc is in celebrating the breathtaking beauty of the “lost in the woods” sequence, which calls to mind Criterion’s restoration of the Peter Weir coming-of-age classic Picnic at Hanging Rock.
Alongside the inclusion of Chaplin’s 1917 comedic short The Immigrant, which appears in Les Enfants, the Criterion release serves up a bevy of bonus features such as a candid interview with Malle’s widow Candice Bergen and an insightful companion booklet that sheds additional light on the film and the individuals that Malle says Au Revoir to in this moving picture of the past.
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FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.