Au Revoir Les Enfants
Many film directors have used memories from their past in films that were nevertheless mainly works of fiction: Bergman in Fanny and Alexander, Chaplin in several of his masterpieces. In Au revoir les enfants, however, Louis Malle has made a movie out of one experience he hasn’t been able either to get out of his mind or to put on the screen for more than forty years. It is the discovery of evil by a sheltered boy of eleven, in early 1944, in France, during the last months of the German occupation. The young Julien Quentin, who represents the young Louis Malle, attends a Catholic boarding school near Paris. There he discovers that an intelligent new boy in his class is a Jew who is being hidden under the name Jean Bonnet by the priests who run the school. The two boys become friends, but soon the Gestapo, tipped off by a disgruntled employee in the school’s kitchen, arrests the Jewish boy and the headmaster and takes them off to die in concentration camps.
An autobiography is convincing only when the author is perfectly honest. One has to sense that he does not falsify his past, in order to embellish it or else to make himself appear more sinful, and thus less banal, than he was. One has to be impressed by the passion and sincerity the author expresses in looking back. Malle is convincing on both counts, even though, for artistic reasons, he has made the relationship between the two boys closer than it had been in reality. There is not a false note in his film. The young Julien Quentin has, inevitably, an understanding and vision limited by both his youth and his upbringing. The movie conveys what this boy felt and saw, and also how Malle, forty years later, feels about and judges the boy. Critics who have denounced the film as “thin” don’t seem to understand that anything “thicker” would have been wrong. Moreover, the central theme isn’t thin at all—certainly not to anyone who lived in France (as I did) during the years of the Occupation. Malle’s story deals in its own way with the same phenomenon Ionesco tried to evoke in his great allegory The Rhinoceros—the brutal intrusion of evil in everyday life, among people reluctant to recognize it.
Quentin—like Malle—belongs to a well-to-do family. His father is a businessman, too busy with his factory to visit his two sons in their school. His seductive and elegantly empty-headed mother (a sharper version of the mother in Malle’s movie Le souffle au coeur, which ended in light-hearted incest) is clearly not used to having anything to do with either Jews or people from lower classes, such as Jean, the son of an accountant. Malle is merciless toward his family and himself; he shows Julien as a spoiled, childish braggart and a smart aleck with no talent for the piano, although his mother, as a good …