31 May 2010

Parting is Not Always So Sweet a Sorrow -- Malle's Au revoir les enfants

There are some wounds, both physical and psychological, that neither time nor therapy will ever fully heal. For Louis Malle such a scar was inflicted him when at age 12 he watched a friend being led away by the Nazis. That friend was a Jew and he would die at Auschwitz.

Malle undoubtedly found some catharsis in making a movie that climaxed with that incident, Au revoir les enfants (1987).

Some films are technically perfect but have no soul. There is not a wasted shot, the story flows, the performances are all spot on but while watching the movie is an enjoyable experience, it is also ultimately forgettable one. Not so with ARLE which embodies both the superior craftsmanship of Malle the director while being an expression from the heart of Malle the man.

Julien is a 12 year old mama's boy sent off by his glamorous mom to a Catholic boarding school to avoid the perils of war time Paris. It is early 1944 and liberation is still a dream for the French. The Nazis and their French collaborators have a firm grip on many aspects of life. The students at the school include three Jews living under assumed names, their true identities unknown by their classmates.

Gradually Julien and one of the Jewish lads, Jean, become fast friends. And gradually Julien discovers Jean's secret. Julien is no anti semite, indeed he's not even altogether sure what a Jew is.

The film is as evocative a telling of boys' pre teens years as you'll ever see. ARLE never veers into sentimentality nor stoops for easy laughs in its depiction of boys at school and play. Even with their country occupied by enemy troops and with occasional bombs being dropped by their supposed allies, boys will be boys. Math class goes on. English essays must be written. Piano lessons are taken.

Young men are by nature borderline cruel as they test and tease one another. They are forever pushing boundaries with adults and are not hesitant to break rules if its suits them. But at the same time boys are starting to find their place in the world, separating from parents whether mom and dad are near or far or in concentration camps. Talents are being discovered or perhaps already being refined. Strong friendships that can last a lifetime or maybe just a week are formed.

Having armed Nazis about is paradoxically of no consequence and the greatest bogeyman imaginable. Life goes on amid all manner of calamity. Boys are resilient, though not unbreakable.

At the 12 year-old Malle's school the three Jews along with the school's headmaster were betrayed and the Gestapo came to take them on one fittingly cold January day.
It is the headmaster who utters the farewell that gave the film it's title. "Au revoir les enfants" (good bye children). Julien and the rest of school can only watch.

It was over 40 years after the real events occurred that the movie premiered. The wounds of watching a friend, two other classmates and the headmaster being taken away had not been healed for Louis Malle. There was, he said after, a sense of relief to having told the story, but one can't imagine it served as a cure-all for the pain inflicted that day.

Remarkably, Au revoir les enfants is not a depressing film, nor particularly sad. Oh sure a tear or two may form as the closing credits roll, but that's not what one if left with. The story is too rich, too well told to be trivialized as merely "a sad story." The characters, in lead, supporting and small roles, are expertly realized. Malle's direction is perfect and thus all the events within the story too memorable to be left with just one closing moment, no matter how powerful. And indeed it is one of the most touching and beautifully told endings in cinema. Yet is is just one part of a masterpiece.

What great fortune for Malle to be able to share the story. The telling of it gave him some solace while giving audiences a film not soon forgotten.

1 comment:

Jess said...

OMG, this is one of my favorite movies of all time. We watched it in class a long time ago (maybe 20 years ago) and I've loved it ever since. Such a beautiful movie that takes a few different genres and makes them into one terrific film.d