Louis Malle’s Au Revoir les Enfants follows the fate of two boys, one Jewish (Bonnet) and one not (Julien), at a secluded Catholic private school for the children of the rich. Malle begins his film on a train platform in Paris as Julien, a boy of twelve, says a painful goodbye to his mother. The simple scene belies its complexity, as it exhibits an intricacy that is evidence of a master in command of his craft.It is in the middle of WWII, and the boy feels the pain of separation acutely. If he isn’t actually crying, we know he wants to. Still feeling the longing of a child, yet needing to act grown up beyond his years, the tension within bubbles to the surface as Julien lashes out at his mother. We know he doesn’t hate her, in spite of his words. Yet as children are wont to do, he offers an extreme emotional reaction in lieu of expressing his true feelings.
Early in this scene, Julien’s mother says hello to some children passing her to board the train. The subtle irony of this statement, both in light of the film’s title and the fact that these boys are leaving to go somewhere further illustrate the isolation of Julien from his mother. He wants nothing more than to stay at home with her, yet she is happily greeting other children while he gets ready to leave.
Julien’s isolation is seen also in the disconnect between he and his older brother/fellow students on the platform. His brother playfully makes fun of him in the midst of this difficult separation and illustrates his own independence from his mother by smoking in front of her. Julien also expresses disdain for his fellow students, no doubt feeling the sting of his upcoming separation.
The complexity of Julien’s character is further compounded for us as his mother, in a poor attempt at comfort, wishes that she could dress as a boy and be with her son all the time he is away at school. Julien is at a significant moment in his life – being forced away from his mother, yet still a child desiring her embrace. When his mother kisses him goodbye on the forehead, he boards the train with the red lip print still visible. He is so lost in his anguish that he cares not for appearances.
Thus, in a simple goodbye scene that takes place on a non-descript train platform and lasts not longer than two and a half minutes, Malle has essentially established the depth of his main character, the one through whom we will experience the events and people in the film. He’s isolated, frustrated, angry, and sad. The union Malle exhibits between economy and complexity marks the entire film – simple scenes filled with details that enrich characterization, evoke the time and place, and subtly walk us into the loss of childhood that Julien experiences.