I happened to catch 'Au Revoir Les Enfants' ('Goodbye, Children') on television last month. Not all movies regarded as classics stand up to that stature when you get around to seeing them. This one did for me.
Sometimes, events in our life we would rather forget take on mythic shape. These are events that stay with us through our lifetime, burned as they were onto the blank screens of our mind. And yet when they are actually occurring they seldom register as being of any importance at all. It is only the passage of time, and the vantage of perspective that grant them significance afterward. ‘Au Revoir Les Enfants', probably the most regarded movie made by Louis Malle, starts out as being a simple telling of the childhood life of one boy (a stand-in for the director’s own experiences), and at the end becomes a documentation of a singular event that can be fairly described as life-altering.
The movie covers the story of two boys in a boarding school run by priests in Nazi-occupied France during WWII. The movie is seen through the eyes of a French boy who develops an initial rift - and eventual friendship - with a new boy at school. Upon finding that his friend is Jewish and is being kept hidden at the school by the priests, this barely registers as information of any significance to the boy in the routine business of being kids of a particular age. The film captures the mundane daily activities at the school and the shifting allegiances that develop in that environment. And then an act of unwitting betrayal gets committed upon which the moral pivot for the entire story balances. One of the strengths of the movie is that it is left to the viewer to determine whether this act – entirely casual, and clearly unintentional – leads to the eventual terrible outcome in the movie. Regardless, that act probably left a strong enough imprint in the director's real life that drove him to make this film. How could it not?
About twelve years ago, I had gone for a job interview to Boston. It had snowed all morning and then become warmer by midday, creating much slush. After finishing my interview, I was in a rush to catch my flight back home in the evening. Already a bit late, and realizing that I needed to return the rental car still, I was eager to make up time on my drive to the airport. The temperatures had begun to drop as I got on the freeway. Surprised that none of the other cars were in the leftmost lane, I impatiently took to that lane and began passing the other cars. It was snowing lightly, but the visibility was good. About a mile after zipping past the other cars, I felt my car wheels catch, just as I realized that I had been probably driving on freshly frozen clear ice in that lane. You are told many times that the last thing to do when the car wheels catch is to hit the brakes. And yet, in the moment, slaved by every instinct in your body, that is exactly what you do. As I jammed on the brakes, my car spun like an energized orbiting satellite on its axis. It did two rotations and then stopped in the adjoining lane but in the opposite direction, facing oncoming cars. As cars changed lanes before they whizzed by me, I calmly turned my car around in the right direction, and drove off. I must have driven about five miles before my heart started racing and the import of what had just happened to me sunk in. I was shaking by the time I boarded the plane, but when the actual event was occurring I recall being completely calm, guided who knows by what - some evolutionary instinct, or inadvertent release of chemical(s) into the bloodstream? In the years since then, the images have come back to me often - of the speeding cars heading directly toward me - and then parting just before approaching me. And I know this is something that I will remember always. I am not even remotely suggesting that my little episode is similar in impact or importance to the event that transpires toward the end of ‘Au Revoir Les Enfants’. But oddly, that evening on the Boston freeway is what I was reminded of most as the movie sunk into me in the days after seeing it.
There are two particularly impressive things about ‘Au Revoir Les Enfants’.
One of the more difficult things to do in movies is to capture childhood well. Somehow European movies have done a better job with this. Few are the films that get the rhythms of childhood just right. The harrowingly important priorities of a child, the immediate needs, the small things that can mean so much. The ease with which hostility can get exchanged between children. The slow and unconscious building of trust and friendship. This movie captures all of these cadences just right. To ascribe this to the autobiographical nature of the film would be to take away from its merits. You would be hard-pressed to not recognize your own growing-up experiences, no matter how varied, within the scenes of this movie.
And yet the movie willfully avoids melodrama. Movies by definition are meant to be...well, cinematic. And one of the more difficult things to do in movies is to shun the dramatic. To be factual and banal in each moment. To trust that the accumulation of the scenes will eventually register as a whole of some importance, and to not be tempted to impart drama or tension to individual scenes. This is a risky thing to do but when it works, it can provide rich dividends in terms of audience impact. How chilling for a viewer to find themselves in a movie that edges up on them slowly and without fanfare devastates them. ‘Au Revoir Les Enfants’ is a good example of this.