Au Revoir Les Enfants (1987) (PG)

"Au Revoir Les Enfants" or "Goodbye, Children" is perhaps the most unsentimental and understated movie about the Holocaust, probably because it never addresses the genocide in its severely limited narrative. Usually movies take some liberties and depart from their main character when the scene calls for it. It happens in "Schindler's List" often; but it never happens in "Au Revoir Les Enfants". We always see and hear only what Julien Quentin (Gaspard Manesse) sees and hears.
A film that seems to teeter on the border between "Zero for Conduit" and "The Boy with the Striped Pajamas", "Au Revoir Les Enfants" is about gaining knowledge and taking upon responsibility. It's about maturing in the most haunting way. Throughout the course of the movie's length, which to be fair isn't that long, the characters earn a deep appreciation for severity, mortality, and friendship.
"Au Revoir Les Enfants" begins on a train platform as a locomotive is about the whisk Julien away from his mother off to a private Catholic school. He doesn't want to go, but his mother forces him to.
Julien is a tough-guy, even for being eleven or twelve. He doesn't like to be pushed around and on the first day that he goes back to school, Jean Bonnet (Raphael Fejtö) joins the school. He tells Jean to stay out of his way and not to bother him.
A great deal of the movie is eaten up with quasi-pointless scenes like one classroom motif after the other. It vaguely rings true of Fellini's "Amarcord", though none of the characters are half as crass as they are in the Italian movie. But they do things similarly. They all gape at pornography, they discover and make references to masturbation. These are boys on the cusp of puberty, with high and changing voices and a whole lot of complicated emotions flying around.
Set this to the backdrop of the rigorous school and you've got yourself a drama already; but "Au Revoir Les Enfants" takes it one step further and adds WWII into the mix.
If you didn't know it was coming, you might not have guessed that the film was set in the 1940s; but it doesn't take long before an air raid siren interrupts a class and the children are ushered off to the shelter. These are people who have learned to deal with the war, not some frantic lot who don't know which end is up. They calmly file off to the shelter and continue a math lesson there.
Julien becomes interested with Jean, mainly because it gives him someone else to pick on. The two don't make the best of first meetings; but eventually they begin to tolerate each other. Jean is carrying a secret, one that the audience gets to guess at far before Julien ever figures it out—Jean is Jewish and being hidden from the Germans.
Julien is slow to put the pieces together and he does so on his own, not by some crass confrontation with Jean. He snoops, he pokes around...that's what I like most about "Au Revoir Les Enfant", it never feels fake about the age of its characters.
Shot in a moody and dark color, the film is very bleak to look at. We see much of the gray sky of winter and no blooms of spring. Everything is dying. Still, the film tries its best to encapsulate the essence of a school and we get several side stories including Joseph, the kitchen hand and the story of Julien's older brother.
The film is never boring and quite suspenseful at spots. Because we know more than Julien, we are more nervous than he.
"Au Revoir Les Enfants" never tries to make you weep, yet you may have to. It tries to tell a story in the best way it can and it does.

Score: ★★★★

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