Au Revoir les Enfants (1987)

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.

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2 thoughts on “Au Revoir les Enfants (1987)

  1. Hi John!

    I had the local library track this one down for me. Looking forward to viewing it.

    I have a question that’s out of the movie realm, but related to the arts… I ran across a song recently that stopped me in my tracks for its seemingly powerful evangelistic message. I was just sure I’d landed on a new rock group with ties to Christianity a la U2. I thought I’d blog about this wonderful song. I went to the group’s website and it was hard to find much in the way of a Christian influence there. In fact, I-Tunes labeled one of the group’s songs
    “explicit.” Who knows what the writers had in mind… but I’m no longer convinced it was Christ.

    So, what do you do with something like this? Enjoy that one song and even recommend it to others for the personal connection that the listener can make (e.g., to Christ)… even if it’s not what the artist intended? Or, run from it if the “linkage” (to the artist) is potentially undesirable. I wouldn’t want to lead someone to the doorstep of a band that’s dealing in harmful messages. On the other hand, if there’s something beautiful to be found in a particular song…

    Same question could apply to film, I suppose. What do you think?

    Sarah Onderdonk

  2. Hey Sarah, thanks for the question, and, FWIW, I think it does relate to film.

    When I interpret a work, I am interested in the artist’s perspective, but I think it would be limiting to approach any work from simply that angle. We must consider things the “text” reveals that are possibly outside the realm of the artist’s intent. Further, any interpretation is guided by questions we ask, and is thus in many ways, an individual pursuit.

    So, you and I might approach a work with a similar methodology (like I proposed above), yet end up in vastly different places. This is where dialog and conversation are so important, because through that process our eyes are opened to a variety of perspectives, to truth that maybe we wouldn’t have come across on our own.

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