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Au Revoir Les Enfants (Blu-ray Review)

14 Mar, 2011 By: Mike Clark

Street 3/15/11
$39.95 Blu-ray
Not rated.
In French with English subtitles.
Stars Gaspard Manesse, Raphael Fejto, Francine Racette.

Though the severely pronounced peaks and valleys of director Louis Malle’s career didn’t include an inordinate number of duds that were totally beyond redemption, he did make Crackers and Alamo Bay in succession during the mid-1980s. Especially wounded by Vincent Canby’s brutal New York Times review of the latter (a reaction Malle widow Candice Bergen recalls in a supplemental interview here), Malle returned to homeland France and undertook a long-gestating semi-autobiographical project — one he’d avoided until he had the maturity and perspective to tackle it. The result was Au Revoir Les Enfants, one of the writer/director’s greatest achievements and a worthy companion piece to what Malle regarded as his greatest work: 1974’s Lacombe, Lucien.

Both films involve French collaboration with the Germans during the waning days of World War II, but Au Revoir is specifically based on a life-altering event the filmmaker witnessed in his youth, when his prestigious Catholic boarding school hid in plain sight a handful of Jewish youngsters. Then, in January 1944, he watched a Gestapo agent enter his Fontainebleau classroom and haul away a fellow student. The other Jewish boys were seized as well, as was the school’s headmaster — he the only one to survive the war (but just barely).

The screen result has a pitch-perfect tone: melancholy with a sense of dread but also with a sense of humor. Stripped of the personal dimension Malle brings to the story, one can almost imagine Francois Truffaut having directed it — and, indeed, some of the classroom scenes recall The 400 Blows, though, appropriately, the laughs aren’t as knockabout (more like warm, knowing chuckles that emanate from situations that feel true to life). There’s also a direct link to Lacombe, Lucien with a significant supporting character who rates his own featurette in the Blu-ray’s bonus section — one so politically maladroit (not that he’s awash in employment options) that he joins the Gestapo in 1944.

Perhaps story-central Julien (Gaspard Manesse as a stand-in for Malle) can’t feel the tide turning because he’s in the process of learning about life on just about every level. But his family members do. Played by Francine Racette (in real life, the longtime companion of Donald Sutherland), Gaspard’s mother notes that “everyone” has turned against (Vichy France chieftain Philippe) Petain — a rather haughty remark that inspires film historian Philip Kemp, in one of the two Criterion essays here, to compare it to “the pique of one accused of favoring last season’s hemline.” And Julien’s girl-crazy older brother is confident enough by this time to make a regular habit of giving the Gestapo members and collaborators wrong information when they ask for directions.

Most of the child actors here were not professionals, and in a 53-minute audio excerpt here from a 1988 AFI interview, Malle recounts his fears of being unable to cast the two key roles of Julien and his Jewish classmate Jean Bonnet (usually called “Bonnet” and played by the hauntingly passive-looking Raphael Fejto). Failure to do so would have meant postponing production, which is always a minefield. And in this case, it was imperative that Malle have a January shooting schedule to match the real-life events, in which frigid temperatures were part of the memory. Once he succeeded (in December), Bergen visited the set and recalls that it was the coldest she had ever been in her life. Production photos show her and Malle thoroughly bundled up — while the kids playing the students stood outside in knickers (with legs, says, Bergen, that were blue).

You can walk into this movie not knowing anything about the particulars and almost immediately sense that it’s authentic. Every scene is invested with details — you could call them “throwaways,” but that would seriously undervalue them — that don’t in any sense feel contrived. You see this in the boys’ adolescent literary discussion of Arabian Nights’ sex scenes; during the school’s recreational showing of Chaplin’s The Immigrant (included on the Blu-ray as an extra); during some impromptu boogie-woogie by Gaspard and Bonnet at the piano; during the black marketeering subplot that emanates from the school’s kitchen; and the flirtatious act that Gaspard’s essentially decent mother puts on for Gestapo restaurant customers (they are handsome men, don’t you know).

Previously released as a DVD in a 3-for-3 Criterion box with Lacombe and Murmur of the Heart and eventually as a solo, Au Revoir on Blu-ray nails the muted-color look and soundtrack (Malle was a stickler for sound) of the theatrical presentation — just as I remember it at the New York press screening. And speaking of that, Vincent Canby made amends by putting the film on his yearly 10-best list, a couple months before it received an Oscar nomination for best foreign-language film. It lost in a surprise upset to Denmark’s Babette’s Feast — a choice I wouldn’t wish on anyone. I do wish, though, that more people would take the time to see both — each among the decade’s supreme screen accomplishments.

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