At a Catholic boys’ school in occupied France, a snotty rich kid, Julien (Gaspard Manesse), slowly befriends an unusual newcomer, Bonnet (Raphael Fejtö), who happens to be a Jewish boy in hiding.
- Unlike Roman Polanski’s The Pianist and Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, the two best-known movies about the persecution of Jews during the Nazi era, Louis Malle’s Au revoir les enfants actually feels true to life. In Malle’s autobiographical story, there are no movie heroes, no bullshit about the “triumph of the human spirit,” and no one cries “I could have done more” or some such.
- Au revoir les enfants boasts excellent production values, from Renato Berta’s poetically subdued cinematography to Emmanuelle Castro’s expert film editing.
- Raphael Fejtö is particularly moving as the Jewish boy, for although Bonnet is a victim of both fate and human evil, Fejtö never wallows in self-pity.
- Unlike both The Pianist and Schindler’s List, there’s no feel-good happy (or even hopeful) ending in Au revoir les enfants. Much like there was no happy ending for six million European Jews at that time.
- The cons in Au revoir les enfants are mostly minor details, e.g., an overemphasis on the “carefree spirit of youth” as we get to see time and again how rowdy the schoolboys are, and an unnecessary and heavy-handed homage to the movies which tells us that we’re all – Catholic priests included – little joyful kids whenever we laugh at Charles Chaplin’s Little Tramp. (I guess that makes me an embittered old man, as I usually don’t find Chaplin funny.)
- More troublesome is Gaspard Manesse’s diffidence as Malle’s alter ego Julien. True, Manesse is initially supposed to come across as a snotty rich brat, but his maturation into a more compassionate individual was less convincing than it should have been because it wasn’t evidenced in the young actor’s face and manner.
- As good as Raphael Fejtö is in the role, Bonnet is a problematic character in that Malle idealizes him a little too much: Bonnet is more introspective, more intelligent, more mature, more handsome, more everything that’s admirable than the school’s Catholic kids. In Au revoir les enfants, Bonnet is a boy, not a hero – but he’s a superior specimen all the same.
- And finally, besides Julien, wouldn’t someone in the crowded school dormitory have noticed that Bonnet had a habit of reciting Jewish prayers in the middle of the night?
- Despite its mostly minor flaws, Au revoir les enfants remains one of the best and most devastating motion pictures about the persecution of Jews during World War II.
Au Revoir les Enfants / Goodbye, Children (1987).
Dir. / Scr.: Louis Malle.
Cast: Gaspard Manesse, Raphael Fejtö, Francine Racette, Stanislas Carré De Malberg, François Berléand, Philippe Morier-Genoud, Irène Jacob.