Au Revoir Les Enfants

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As a filmmaker, Louis Malle has a strange and chilly, almost impersonal style. It’s easy to see movies like Atlantic City and May Fools as stylishly uninvolved. Even his most lurid and controversial work — The Lovers, Pretty Baby and Damage — depict sexual obsession and passion with detached curiosity. What he excelled at, however, was patience. His camera lingers a beat longer than expected to reveal small truths. He revels in those quiet, uncomfortable moments where a character’s intention is revealed by a casual look or gesture.

It’s with that supreme patience that Malle delivers his most intensely personal and best film, Au Revoir Les Enfants. Set in 1944 in a Catholic boarding school in occupied France, it tells the story of Julien (Gaspard Manesse), a wealthy Parisian schoolboy who befriends new student Bonnet (Raphael Fejtö). At first Julien is jealous of Bonnet’s obvious intelligence and talent; he sees the boy’s timidity as a sign of weakness and joins his classmates in their bullying. But over time he discovers that there’s a good reason for Bonnet’s silent and secretive nature.

Using his own childhood experiences, Malle expertly re-creates the everyday hardships and emotional uncertainties war brings to even the most tranquil of settings. Sudden air raids, German patrols, and rationed food and bath water infect every corner of life, and yet the boys behave with oblivious bravado, gleefully contemptuous of the monks who desperately try to keep them safe. With his careful attention to detail and nuance, the director masterfully captures the rhythms and rituals of childhood, showing how they mimic and presage the worst behaviors of man: war, prejudice and petty selfishness.

By training his camera on the blandness of real life and the callous innocence of youth, Malle avoids sentimentality and allows Julien’s slow epiphany and his unintentional betrayal to develop to devastating effect. The film quietly catches up with you, evoking the fear and tragic regret of boys who realize they aren’t as grown up as they think they are.

Shot with a burnished lushness, Malle’s visuals are stunning; the forest, the schoolyard, even the boys’ dormitory glow with storybook purity. The performers, particularly the children, are so convincing and authentic it’s hard to believe they’re acting.

Though American audiences may find it difficult to surrender to the deliberately gentle pace and lack of narrative thrust, this heartfelt examination of identity and shattered innocence offers a feast of understated rewards.

 

Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre, inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit, at 7 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 11. 313-833-3237.

Jeff Meyers writes about film for MetroTimes. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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