It is there, behind one of those doors, the one secret that informs everything in a life, that shapes the psyche, living inside it, the way steel lives inside the flesh of a building.

Let's call it the primal moment.

For Louis Malle, the transforming event occurred in 1944. He was 11 and a student at the Petit Colle`ge d'Avon, a Carmelite boarding school for upper-middle-class boys not far from Paris. We can see what happened -- or close to what happened -- in his new movie, "Au Revoir Les Enfants." It is winter and the Germans have come to the school looking for a young Jewish boy, Jean (Raphae l Fejto ), who has been posing as a Catholic to escape being sent to the camps. As the Gestapo chief moves down the row in their classroom, carefully scanning the students' faces for a clue, the Malle character, a precocious mama's boy named Julien (Gaspard Manesse), nervously glances over at his friend, tipping off the official and, seemingly, causing Jean's arrest. Later, as he is being led away, he walks over to shake Julien's hand, but just as their fingers touch, Jean is snatched away.

The whole war -- and all that this war has come to mean to us -- is banked into that simple, broken-off handshake. And, as Malle has staged it, this modest-seeming act is more terrible than a thousand battle scenes. You may have to wait a long while before you find an image as potent or as wrenchingly violent as this one. It lingers in the viewer's brain the way it has in Malle's, haunting you, filling you with grief and anger.

Like the pearl that forms around a grain of sand, Malle's life has formed around this moment. It is his glorious malady, his guilty burden and his prize.

"It took me years to be able to make peace with it a little bit," Malle confesses. "Throughout those early years, I would have been shocked if someone had suggested I make a film out of it. That would have been absolutely taboo for me. Instinctively I knew that, in a way, it was my secret and I didn't want to expose myself."

And yet, in his circuitous, borderline obsessive way, Malle has flirted with his taboo in his films, searching the same ground, as if something essential had been lost there. In the past, we've scratched our heads, wondering, what is this fascination with children, with initiations and deflowerings? Why in his films do we repeatedly witness those moments where innocence is lost forever and the child gives way to the adult? Now, with "Au Revoir Les Enfants," we know. It has been there, on the screen, again and again -- in "Pretty Baby" with the young prostitute's first trick, in "Murmur of the Heart," with the boy's incestuous night with his mother, in "Zazie" with the little girl's immersion in the puzzling weirdnesses of the grown-up world -- the primal moment recast.

"There is a moment near the end of 'Zazie,' " Malle explains, "where the mother looks down at her little 10-year-old girl -- who has come to the big city and finds that her uncle is a transvestite and everybody's changing identities, and in the course of 24 hours discovers corruption and everything else about life -- and asks, 'So what happened to you, Zazie?' And the little girl answers, 'Je vielle.' Which means 'I grew older.' And in a way, that's what happened to me with Bonnet in '44. It was the end of childhood."

At the close of "Les Enfants," Malle speaks directly to the audience in his own voice. His statement is brief, direct and, given what has gone before, almost unbearable. "More than 40 years have passed," he says, "but I will remember every second of that January morning until I die." The same mixture of urgency and restraint, of tension and laconicism, that Malle has invested in these words is built into every frame of "Au Revoir Les Enfants," and it gives the film a transforming power of its own.

In Malle's mind, "Au Revoir Les Enfants" is the movie he has spent all his life building up to, the one he has polished his craft for -- the one movie he had to make. And when he talks about it in his lightly accented English, the ardor to communicate himself, and the slightly nervous intensity of his eyes as they read you for signs of whether he's reaching you, can be daunting yet in their own way, almost childlike.

Malle calls "Au Revoir Les Enfants" ("Goodbye Children") a mixture of fact and fiction, but that many of the events depicted in the film are the director's own creation, his own "reinvention of the past," in no way diminishes their spell. As it turns out, Bonnet and Malle were hardly best friends. Nor, until the end, did Malle know Bonnet's secret. And Julien's furtive, condemning glance is a fiction as well. But there was nothing made up about the handshake. Or about the real-life Jean's being sent to Auschwitz, where shortly afterward he died. Or about the incident's profound impact on Malle. Little wonder then that this is the film that frightened him most.

"I was scared because I would never have forgiven myself if I had not succeeded on this one," Malle admits over lunch at a New York restaurant not far from the Central Park South apartment he shares with his wife Candice Bergen and their daughter Chloe. "Also, a lot of people in France, including some of the people who had put up money, were a little nervous about whether this story wasn't something of the past, something that nobody really wanted to deal with anymore. There have been a number of films about World War II, about the occupation and the Holocaust and Catholic boarding schools ... And all I could say was that it was very interesting for me because ... well, because it is my story."

Malle's story began in October of 1932 in Thumeries, France, where he was born the youngest of seven children to the heiress Franc oise Beghin Malle and her husband Pierre, who as the owners of the Beghin sugar refinery controlled a major share of the French sugar industry. And we can see in "Au Revoir" a portrait of the artist as a somewhat spoiled, precocious young mama's boy. "I was a little bit the favorite," he says, smiling like a man who was indeed his mother's favorite. "We were seven brothers and sisters, but for some reason, I don't know, she liked me."

The life he lived as a boy was very much like the one he described in his 1971 film "Murmur of the Heart" -- privileged, sheltered, Catholic. During the summers he vacationed in Ireland, where he learned English and discovered American movies. But, clearly, all was not well. What happened at Petit Colle`ge d'Avon had seriously traumatized him. And, as is always the case after major shocks, there were tremors and aftershocks and debris.

"What it did to me," Malle confesses, "was make me a sort of rebel. Very quickly in the next couple of years after that I was kicked out of that school for not believing in God. I just couldn't accept His existence. For years, I was angry. I felt that the world as it existed was ... unacceptable. So how could there be a God, if He let things like this happen?

"Also, I had terrible problems with my parents because I refused to accept anything that I was told. It took me years to digest what happened, to try to understand it. And I discovered that there is no way to understand something like that. It's impossible. Incomprehensible. To this day I just reject that it had to happen. Then, little by little, I began to find out about other things that were not the way they were supposed to be. What it provoked was the sort of rebellion that could lead you anywhere."

It led him, he believes, into his present career. In an introductory note written for a screening of his film at the Venice Film Festival, he said the incident "may have triggered my becoming a filmmaker. I should have made it the subject of my first film, but I preferred to wait."

"I wrote it, just like that," he says. "And I thought at the time, 'Oh well, this is quite a statement.' But I left it and I think it's true. I'm not saying that if it had not happened I would not have become a filmmaker. But I doubt it." Malle readily concedes, though, that there may have been other catalysts working to push him into the movies. Perhaps it is partly connected to another boyhood trauma, a heart murmur, which forced him to curtail some of his more rambunctious adolescent behavior, leaving plenty of time for trips to the cine-clubs with his brother. Or maybe it was just seeing Jean Renoir's "The Rules of the Game." But even if the exact motivation eludes him, the moment he decided to announce his decision to his family is something he'll never forget.

"I was studying at home in Paris with private teachers because I wasn't supposed to do anything except take care of my heart, and at the age of 13, I remember telling my mother, 'Well, I've made up my mind. I'm going to be a film director.' She was so shocked, the poor woman, so shocked. And so taken by surprise. She said, 'Louis, you're not serious?!' 'Yes,' I said, 'I am serious.' And she hit me. Which, believe me, never happened."

After a long battle, Malle ended up in the School of Economics at Paris University while at the same time taking classes at the Institute des Haute Etudes Cinematographiques. Even after the economics was dropped, though, the situation at the school was far from ideal. ("You don't learn anything there, but it is sort of prestigious," he says.) Finally, as he was finishing his second year, a more appealing opportunity came his way when Jaccques Cousteau asked if anyone would like to would to work as an apprentice on the Calypso for the summer. He immediately volunteered.

"I think I got the assignment," Malle says, "because I was the only one in my class who could swim." At the end of the summer, Cousteau asked if Malle would consider passing up the remainder of school to take charge of making films on the Calypso. He considered it, and for the next three years worked as a sort of shipboard cine'aste, eventually earning credit as codirector with Cousteau on an undersea documentary -- one of the first -- titled "The Silent World," which won the Golden Palm award at the 1956 Cannes Film Festival. Two years later, after working as an assistant to director Robert Bresson on "A Man Escaped," he made his first feature, a thriller starring the young Jeanne Moreau called "Elevator to the Gallows."

Malle's career, which actually predated the beginning of the French New Wave and, for that reason, has never been seen as part of that movement, has since then been full of "cuts and ruptures and moments of dropping out." After roughly eight years in Paris, during which he averaged about a film a year, he put together a skeleton crew and flew off to India, where he made two extraordinary documentaries, "Calcutta" and "Phantom India." This was followed by another stint in Paris, where he lived and worked until 1976, when he came to America to make "Pretty Baby."

The provocations to pack up and move to America, he says, were approximately the same as they were when he made similar moves in the past. And in describing those years, Malle sounds something like a man who has finally touched ground after a long and turbulent flight. "During both the '60s and the '70s, I felt that I needed a change of scene. In '76, when I first came over here, I felt I was losing my curiosity. I was in Paris and I felt like everything was always the same. Nothing or no one was ever surprising me, and I felt I needed to give myself a new start. And that's what I did. If I hadn't I don't know what would have happened to me."

All during these early years, Malle says, he was unsettled, fighting against himself and his background, struggling against the impulse to confront his demons directly on screen.

"For some reason, many filmmakers -- novelists too, for that matter -- almost immediately start dealing with their own stuff," he explains. "For me, it took a long time in my career to start talking about stuff that was really personal. I would do it through detours."

Even in preparation for this movie, he admits encountering some of the same hesitations and uncertainties. "When I was working on the script," he says, "I didn't want to keep being tied down by having to tell the story exactly as it happened. So from the beginning I tried to change the names, I tried to change the locations, I tried to come up with even more drastic differences."

But the facts, he says, kept asserting themselves, forcing him to, in effect, confess his past. "As I was writing I kept coming back closer to the original, to what actually happened. From time to time I would take off and add a scene, change a detail, and I developed certain characters, but essentially I couldn't help being really faithful to what happened. And it happened almost against my will. Now it's a lot easier for me. I understand now why I was so much the rebel, but at the same time, I've grown out of it."

The years in America have been a mixed success for Malle. On the one hand he forged alliances with the playwright John Guare, who collaborated with him on "Atlantic City," and with Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory, who wrote and starred in "My Dinner With Andre," and got married and fathered a child. On the other, his last two features were the disappointing "Crackers" and "Alamo Bay."

Malle considers himself a sort of odd man out in the Hollywood movie game. As proof, he points out that his one great stab at being a major player ended in disaster when the script that he and Guare had written for John Belushi was turned in to their producer and looked like a "go" project -- until three days later when Belushi died.

At one point Dustin Hoffman expressed some interest in the material but, Malle says, "whose life is long enough for that?"

Part of the enthusiasm felt over "Au Revoir Les Enfants" comes because it signals that Malle has broken out of his mid-'80s slump.

As an indication of the personal significance Malle attaches to "Au Revoir Les Enfants," the director has dedicated the movie to his own children -- he has three, a son and two daughters -- and, he has said, if he were to be run over by a bus tomorrow, it is the film he would want to leave behind for them. The most compelling fact is that the movie -- and your reaction to the movie -- means so much to him, particularly at a time when it is considered almost retrograde for an artist to wear his convictions so baldly on his sleeve. Clearly he wants for you, needs for you, to care as much as he does.

Now, with "Les Enfants" completed, Malle has a little perspective on the value of his time in this country. If he had stayed in France, he says, maybe he could have made "twice the number of films. And possibly better films." But he questions whether he could have made this movie had he not done his time here. "Maybe I had to leave France for 10 years before I could make this film," he says, searchingly. "I came here expecting not to stay that long. Not at all. Then one day I realized that I had been here for 10 years. And at that point I felt I should go back. With good experiences and bad experiences, I think working here has been good for me. But I think it has helped tremendously for me to come back to my own turf, to work once again in my own language. Coming back to France suddenly helped me, even in dealing with my past, to see things with a new eye. Maybe 10 years out of your life is too long to spend on this act of cleaning up."

The French have never been particularly fond of Malle, perhaps because he is not particularly fond of the French and hasn't hestitated to say so in print. But you'd never know it from the reaction of his countrymen to his latest work. Granted, recent developments in France, including the Klaus Barbie trial last spring, and the statement by French National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen that the Nazi death camps were a "detail" of history -- a statement made a week before "Au Revoir Les Enfants" opened in Paris -- have pushed the film's subject into the forefront of French consciousness.

Still, the French have greeted "Au Revoir Les Enfants" as the return of the prodigal, and have put it up for eight Ce'sars, the French equivalent of the Oscars. (It received two nominations -- for Best Foreign Language Film and Best Original Screenplay -- from the Academy here, too.) However, Malle believes that the favorable reaction to the film in France stems more from his treatment of his subject than from the subject itself.

"While making it, I tried to be fierce with myself about holding back the pathos of the situation," Malle says. "I didn't want to force the emotions. When you deal with children, it's really easy to turn cute. You have to be really careful -- especially with a story as loaded as this one. So I tried to keep it very ... internalized and not play with the audience at all. Letting the audience, little by little, be drawn in by the story. Not forcing it on them."

There's an almost classical rectitude and poise in the manner Malle has chosen to bring his story before the moviegoing public. So desperately is he afraid of imposing himself that he kept the music in the film down to the barest of minimums. Following the screening of the film for his French backers, the reaction was very positive -- they loved it, in fact -- but they were curious as to what kind of score he was going touse. "And I said, that's it! There's the Schubert and the Saint-Sae ns and that's all. But you know if you're Claude Lelouch or Spielberg or any of those guys, it's bring in the violins. There are parts of 'Empire of the Sun' where I was like this," he says, clapping his hands over this ears. "And I thought, 'Am I going to have to leave the theater?' "

The goal, he says, in shooting "Au Revoir Les Enfants" -- and in all his films, for that matter -- was simplicity. "This film works almost insidiously, I think, almost without people being aware of it. It sneaks up on you, and when you react you react very strongly because the emotions have built up slowly. Some people have told me -- and I expect that I should take it as a compliment -- that they almost forgot they were seeing a movie. That it was like a different kind of experience."

Making "Au Revoir Les Enfants" hasn't canceled out Malle's desire to make an autobiographical series of films, what he calls his "pseudo-Proustian project." "I want to try to deal withit," he says. "I know that to do it is going to take time and that I'm sort of in territory that's unknown and at the same time extremely familiar."

Other projects are in the works, like a possible staging of the script he and Guare wrote for Belushi as a play at Lincoln Center. That's down the road, though. For right now, no serious decisions are being made. He's content just to recover his energy and wait to see "where my curiosity takes me."

"That's what I always keep coming back to," he says. "That's the thing that keeps you going. I was stunned, for example, by John Huston coming up at his age with something that is as young -- and I mean young in the best sense -- as 'The Dead.' You could see the amount both of control and enthusiasm. A lot of aging directors just repeat themselves, and lose touch with what's going on. If you follow your curiosity though, you keep fresh. And for me it's great each time to feel that it's the first one."