Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Goodbye the children

TCM's spotlight for tonight is on French director Louis Malle, specifically several of the movies he made in his native France. One that I haven't receommended before is Au revoir, les enfants, at 10:00 PM.

The scene is France in 1944, which of course means the Nazi occupation. Julien (Gaspard Manesse) is a boy who atends a Catholic boarding school. One might think the Nazis would want to close down all the private schools so that they could have complete control over the education system, but this was an occupied country in the midst of war, which means the Nazis probably had bigger things on their mind. Julien and his classmates are about as happy as can be expected, what with having to go to a Catholic school and with all the difficulties of a war and occupation going on. Kids cope somehow.

One day, a new student shows up at the school. Jean Bonnet (Raphael Fejto) is put in Julien's room to share, and unsurprisingly the two boys strike up a friendship. However, Jean has a tendency to act rather guarded, and it eventually becomes clear that he's hiding something. Considering the Nazis' stated policies, it's not that difficult to figure out what it is that Jean is hiding. Julien eventually figures it out, and so we come to know that as with the parish priest in Roberto Rossellini's Rome, Open City, the clergy is resisting the Nazis in the best way they know how. Since they had a boarding school to run, they couldn't be quite so actively resistant, instead using the school to hide Jews who would otherwise be sent to the concentration camps.

For the boys, life goes on, with some situatoins posing difficulties for them, such as a time when they get lost in the woods. Not wanting to come up against curfew, they flag down a car to take them back to school, and the car just happens to be one with Nazi soldiers. Needless to say, Jean the Jew is rather nervous about this. Meanwhile, back among the adults, events are conspiring to make life even more difficult for the students. The priests discover that their janitor has been stealing bread to sell on the black market; to be fair, the janitor has to make a living too. But they fire him, and that gives the janitor leverage to cause problems at the school. One of the moral panics of the current day is bullying, but a movie like this shows that you can use the state as the biggest bully of them all to get back at somebody you don't like.

Au revoir, les enfants is a movie Louis Malle based on his own experiences growing up. The movie has a very personal feel to it, in the way many of the events are less cinematic and more naturalistic than we might expect from Hollywood, or anybody doing a straight historical drama about some period long before they were born. It's an intimacy that works much to the movie's benefit. There's nothing spectacular, just a series of events that leave you with more of an impression than you'd otherwise think.

Au revoir, les enfants is available on DVD, but from the Criterion Collection, which means it's a bit pricey.

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