Au Revoir les enfants is a touching and nostalgic film about the loss of innocence. Julien Quentin (Gaspard Manesse) is an awkward, fanciful adolescent who is sent by his doting mother to a provincial Catholic boarding school. Set in 1940s war-torn France, there is an underlying sense of hardship and uncertainty in this idyllic countryside: German-patrolled streets, food rations, and air raids. The children, oblivious to the crisis plaguing their nation, react with contempt and cruelty at the adults around them who are desperately trying (with their extremely limited resources) to protect them. One day, three new students are introduced to the class, including an unassuming young man named Jean Bonnet (Raphael Fejto). Julien is initially envious of the silent, enigmatic Jean, who seems to excel in everything he tries, but gradually cultivates a friendship with him. They sneak into the music room to play the piano, team up for a treasure hunt in the woods (and subsequently, get hopelessly lost), and secretly read Arabian Nights (undoubtedly a pensive and literate adolescent’s erotica). However, there are also fragments of Jean’s actions whose significance eludes the naive Julien. It is his moment of realization that shatters Julien’s innocence and has profound consequences for Jean. Au Revoir les enfants is a visually stunning and emotionally devastating story of innocence, friendship, and regret.
Louis Malle’s autobiographical account of life in occupied France is a compelling, provocative, and heartfelt examination of personal and national identity. True to life, there is often a discrepancy between who we really are, and who we perceive ourselves to be. Thematically, Malle uses youthful role-playing in the school courtyard, exploring in the woods, and reading adventure books to illustrate the boys’ search to define their own identities. The pervasive presence of German soldiers searching for dissidents, criminals, and Jews provide an uncomfortable sense that their identities are constantly in question. Cinematically, several scenes occur in dark or poorly lit environments, which reflect Jean’s obscure past and Julien’s naiveté. Who are we, and what do we stand for? The answer proves unsettling for the thoughtful Julien – the realization of his own ignorance and culpability. Perhaps the most poignant moment of the film is Malle’s narrative epilogue. Despite the passage of time, the incident is clearly an unsettling memory that continues to haunt him. Au Revoir les enfants, an ominous line taken directly from the film, is an intensely personal and deeply affecting retrospective of innocence, and paradise, lost.
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