Heavy is the heart that ages prematurely. If that’s not the message of the 1987 French classic Au Revoir Les Enfants, then it’s certainly the tone. Writer-director Louis Malle learned this the hard way after, while attending boarding school, he saw
three of his schoolmates and his teacher taken away to concentration camps by the Nazis. Here, in his autobiographical tale, Malle looks back on the incident with matured introspection and light-hearted fondness through the lens of two school boys who became the best of friends during the worst of times.
Taking place at a French Catholic boarding-school during World War II, Les Enfants tells the story of a boy, Julien (Gaspard Manesse), who has a chip on his shoulder. He’s at that point in any young person’s life where they think they are smarter than everyone else, and
hate having no control over anything,. In Julien’s case, he is somewhat right about his intelligence. He reads more than all the other boys and already has the air of a pompous intellectual who smokes cigarettes while wearing a fanciful scarf. However, he also has a bed wetting problem and gets angry over playground disputes. He’s an intelligent boy, but a boy nonetheless. He looks at nudey-mags, makes fun of the priests behind their backs, and messes around on the playground. That is until a new boy, Jean (Raphael Fejto), shows up at the school’s church. Unlike Julien, Jean seems more content with who he is. Jean understands that sometimes all life needs to be about is making the most of what time you have left, while Julien spends more time trying to figure out what “it all means”. With Jean comes the film’s secret, and it brings Julien to the border of childhood and adulthood .
The movie moves at a noticeably slow pace, but staying in one location while telling one story about two friends can do that. It is not meant to be truly exciting. We are meant to watch these two boys as learn to become adults, which starts with caring about someone other than yourself. This path is walked until it escalates to the climax, which involves Julien trying desperately to hide his friend from the Nazis, only to fail. In the final scene, Jean is dragged off to God-knows-where while Julien can only quietly watch. Loss is a key to life, but you must learn to appreciate, even love, like Julien has in his time at school with Jean, before you can truly know what that means. This is an interesting take on the WWII genre, made all the more heartbreaking when shone through the lens of youths. You don’t expect to see children go through such heavy material but it’s also deceptively rewarding as it makes you look on your own relationships with others with more insight and fondness.
Manesse plays Julien with a remarkable sense of guarded insecurity, which may come off a pompous to some (in other words, he is the perfect French actor for stereotyping). But sometimes a dough-eyed curiosity shines through the serious exterior, like when he watches Jean play piano for the first time. Contrasting his seriousness is Fejto as Jean, whose face is always brimming with a shy inquisitiveness, someone who wants to fit in but who can’t, for certain reasons. Together their chemistry brims, as the two characters find a common interest in reading and writing, get lost together in the woods. There is one particular scene where Julien is caught cleaning up his bed-wetting mess and another boy catches him. As soon as the mocking erupts Jean leaps at one of the boys, in hopes of silencing his big mouth. In Jean, Julien finally has a friend who won’t make him feel like a freak. In Julien, Jean finally just has a friend worth defending.It’s hard to find this kind of maturity in children, but if anything the movie proves with good material and direction children have a tendency to surprise us all.
Like Richard Linklater’s masterpiece, Boyhood, Enfants operates in moments. Whether it’s something simple — like children being children or a larger revelation,
all the little moments add up to a larger idea, when apart they could seem meaningless. The movie requires you to look at everything that’s happening and put them together like a puzzle. It’s linear in structure, but still has a non-linear sense of what’s exactly going on. It’s like a road trip. You’re going to one destination but what makes the journey is all the little stops along the way.
For Malle, the destination is adulthood, but the movie isn’t about growing up so much as it is about maturing. Sure, you can read Arabian
Nights from cover-to-cover or grow in size, but you aren’t an adult until you’ve truly faced the moment in life that makes you realize you know absolutely nothing about what will happen to you. The film’s director and his work is a testament to this. Here is a movie that looks back with a smile on the innocence and frivolity of his time at school, but also with an aged sense of self-reflection that acknowledges the point where he went from boy to man, losing a bit of that innocence. It’s a heavy movie indeed, but a rewarding experience for those with an open-mind and a desire explore what life has to offer — and you may emerge an adult as a result.
I found this film at my local library on DVD, but given Hulu’s extensive Criterion Collection archive (a collection that this movie belongs to) it probably isn’t hard to find.