Set in the winter of the Third Reich, Louis Malle's "Au Revoir Les Enfants" is more than his wartime memoir; it is an epitaph to innocence. In this season of boyhood remembrances, Malle's is the most devastating -- an inspired elegy to little boys lost.
This farewell takes place in January 1944 at a Catholic boarding school in the occupied village of Fontainebleau. Classes drone on monastically but for the occasional air raid, and at recess the schoolyard is an anarchy of boys. Malle's alter ego, 12-year-old Julien Quentin (Gaspard Manesse), is just returning for his second semester.
Some of the boys delight in giving the Nazis wrong directions, while the headmaster deceives them by sheltering three Jewish refugees. The youngest, Jean Bonnet (Raphae l Fejto ), becomes Julien's classmate, rival and finally closest friend.
Both Julien and Jean are exceptional scholars, renaissance preadolescents. Their close relationship is forged one night when they are lost in the woods, then rescued by German soldiers, who gently bundle them in a blanket and drive them back to school. Delicacy overlies dread. "Are you scared?" asks Julien. "All the time," says Jean.
Like the other boys, Julien knows nothing of Jean's true identity, but snoops till he learns that Bonnet is a pseudonym. Then one day the Gestapo arrives, and Julien's childhood vanishes along with his friend.
Malle created this as a moving portrait not only of the boys, but of their promise. And the earnest child actors embody all the hopes that are invested in every new generation. Malle chose them for their artlessness, and they are uncommonly touching, though sometimes they haven't the skill to carry the lengthier scenes.
Malle has written and directed with the compassion of an adult and the simplicity of a child, setting the pranks of seventh-graders against the prejudices of adults, juxtaposing grade-school bullies with a Gestapo goon who tears the Allied flags out of a map in a schoolroom. But Malle never oversimplifies; not all Germans are brutes, not all Frenchmen are noble. When French collaborators harass a Jewish gentleman in a restaurant, a German officer throws the collaborators out. All the while, Julien's mother (fabulous Francine Racette) chatters on about "some of my best friends are ..."
Julien has never known a Jew, or for that matter heard of one, though all around him, neighbors are dying. "What is a Jew?" Julien asks his brother Franc ois (Stanislas Carre' de Malberg). "They don't eat pork," explains Franc ois. Thunderstruck, Julien asks, "But what is their crime?"
In Malle's view, France's crime, and Julien's sin, was ignorance -- the ultimate and all-too-familiar defense of complicity. Ignorance is not innocence. But for Malle, even innocence is not enough. "Au Revoir Les Enfants," his first French film in 10 years, marks a rebirth after a spell of weak and meaningless films. Clearly, something needed to be said.
Au Revoir Les Enfants at area theaters, is rated PG and contains material potentially very disturbing to children. In French with subtitles.