Sunday, April 16, 2006

Au revoir, les enfants


Dir: Louis Malle (Damage, My Dinner with Andre)

Let me add another exceptional film that engages the horrors of the Holocaust. This semi-autobiographical film examines Malle's experience as a child growing up in occupied France. The film is set in a sequestered Catholic school run by caring monks who shelter French children (of all religious persuasions) from Nazi rule. Julien, a precocious and popular child, is soon rivaled by the new kid in school, Jean Bonnett. Although Julien leads the playground taunts, he remains fascinated by Jean: his intellect, his artistic prowess, and his odd prayers in an unfamiliar language. The kindly priests implore Julien to embrace Jean as a friend, and treat him with respect, knowing the other kids will follow his lead.

The two develop a growing kinship until Julien discovers Jean's secret identity. Hurt that complete honesty was not part of their friendship, Julien attacks Jean in a typical schoolyard brawl. However, Julien quickly understands the necessity for secrecy when he witnesses first-hand the devastation, and pervasiveness, of anti-semitism. This revelation spawns from complete ignorance; Julien is previously unaware of what it means to be Jewish, let alone who the Jews are. All he knows is that there are people who are subjected to a discrimination that he understands as baseless and arbitrary.

The film offers a child's perspective on the Holocaust that is both poignant and moving. In a very ETesque move, most of the film is shot from a child's height. Malle apparently made the film as a coping mechanism, exorcising a guilt that haunted him for years. He did nothing intentionally wrong, or even remotely morally suspect. But even the most innocent of actions can have devastating consequences. This Venice Film Festival Golden Lion winner is essential viewing for those who wish to be acquainted with the films that chronicle one of the darkest times in human history. In addition to a touching script, wonderful cinematography and solid acting, especially for children, recommend this film.