Au revoir les enfants
The Criterion Collection // PG // $39.95 // March 15, 2011
Review by Adam Tyner | posted March 3, 2011
Highly Recommended
E - M A I L
this review to a friend
Graphical Version
Au revoir les enfants is set during some of the darkest days of the German occupation of France, but its central conflict is not of warring nations or of good versus evil. Its primary characters are instead
[click on the thumbnail to enlarge]
the children of the wealthy and powerful...sheltered from the horrors being perpetrated outside the walls of their palatial estates. Their parents are desperate to maintain that illusion, and the same holds true for the teachers and administrators of the Catholic boarding school that becomes their new home, far removed from the struggles in Paris. With everything France is losing in the conflict, the thought of war consuming their childlike innocence is too much for the adults in their lives to bear, and the façade does hold for a time. The students of this boarding school grouse about chilly classrooms...of having to share the jams and pâté their parents sent along with them...wholly oblivious to how their suffering compares to the atrocities being inflicted on their homeland day in and day out. As the title suggests, however, that illusion is soon shattered.

Louis Malle draws from a tragedy he himself witnessed firsthand, and his perspective in Au revoir les enfants is represented by Julien Quentin (Gaspard Manesse), a child of some twelve years returning to the school for a second semester. Julien is hopelessly spoiled, has not a care in the world, and doesn't even know what a Jew is, let alone have the slightest conception of what unspeakable horrors so many of his countrymen have faced. Julien is far too distracted by smutty pictures, rough-housing his classmates on the playground, and tormenting Jean Bonnet (Raphael Fejto), the quiet, reserved new kid in his class. Something doesn't quite add up with Jean. He's cagy about his past, the teachers all seem to be giving Jean somewhat special attention, and he frustratingly excels at seemingly everything with which he comes into contact, from his studies to the piano...although for a student at a parochial school, Jean is unusually clueless about Catholic rituals. Julien, while nosing around the lockers in a rare moment of solitude in the dormitory, discovers Jean's most closely guarded secret. As he tries to understand what this revelation means, exactly, an unlikely friendship begins to blossom. Julien and Jean giddily plink away at a piano together. They become hopelessly disoriented in the woods on a treasure hunt. They excitedly read a handed-down and ::gasp!:: forbidden copy of Arabian Nights by flashlight. As close as he and Jean quickly become, Julien is too young...too naï fathom what his newfound friend has been forced to endure. If he could comprehend such a thing, Julien likely wouldn't make a small, fleeting mistake that would haunt him for
[click on the thumbnail to enlarge]
the next forty years.

In an interview with the late filmmaker's wife elsewhere on this disc, Candice Bergen remarks that Malle was at heart a documentarian, and that observational spirit is very much on display throughout Au revoir les enfants. Malle refuses to bend this story to march in lockstep with convention. The film's central characters aren't the most readily embraced, and more than one of them make small, seemingly insignificant gaffes that have devastatingly tragic consequences. The weak and downtrodden aren't necessarily sympathetic, and the German soldiers that briefly rear their heads aren't unilaterally cruel or irredeemably evil. One notion of innocence is that the good and the bad are readily distinguishable from one another...that the men in the white hats will emerge triumphant while the men in black meet their justly deserved end. Au revoir les enfants is ultimately about the loss of that sort of naïveté. Easy answers are few and far between, and accordingly, its characters are too deeply layered to neatly fit under one stock heading or another. This complexity makes them real. Au revoir les enfants easily ranks as one of the most accurate depictions of childhood I've seen captured on film, and it's bolstered further by a set of uniformly spectacular performances, the meticulous attention in establishing such a strong sense of place, and, of course, Malle's skilled craftsmanship as a filmmaker. Malle is wholly disinterested in thundering melodrama or overt sentimentality, preferring instead something more immersively quiet and natural. I find myself so engaged by these characters and so immersed in their world that I lose myself in Au revoir les enfants. As I'm not continually reminded that I'm watching a movie, the emotions resonate more deeply...I find myself more intrigued less by the key revelations in the plot themselves -- we, the audience, are savvier than 12-year-old Julien, after all -- but rather how the characters react to them.

Au revoir les enfants is an immensely powerful elegy to the innocence of childhood, and more than most stories exploring the uneasy transition to adulthood, this is a film about identity...not just about coming to understand oneself but one's friends, family, and countrymen as well. Highly Recommended.

As is to be expected, Au revoir les enfants looks terrific in high definition, although the nature of the photography doesn't dazzle in quite the same way that so many of Criterion's other releases have. I confess to not owning the previous DVD release of Au revoir les enfants to do a direct comparison. However, excerpts from the film are featured throughout the interviews recorded in 2005 elsewhere on this Blu-ray disc, and presumably this footage is culled from that earlier DVD release.
Standard Definition
[click on the thumbnail to enlarge]
[click on the thumbnail to enlarge]
Standard Definition
[click on the thumbnail to enlarge]
[click on the thumbnail to enlarge]
Comparing these, the improvements are certainly not dramatic but still noticeable. Most immediately striking, the grain structure is less coarse and far better resolved in 1080p. Among the greatest strengths that Criterion's Blu-ray releases have consistently exhibited is skilled compression work, and true to form, the AVC encode never once buckles under the weight of the film's gritty texture. The artificial sharpening so evident in standard definition is lessened here as well, and the end result is more filmic and natural. The effort invested in dust and dirt removal for this Blu-ray disc is also apparent. The improvement in detail and clarity is better appreciated in motion than these screen captures might suggest, although it is admittedly more modest than in Criterion's most eyecatching titles. There's never any doubt that this is a proper high definition release, particularly throughout the more brightly lit exterior sequences, such as the almost painterly appearance of the first playground scene. The palette of Au revoir les enfants is somber and greatly complements the tone of the film, and as this transfer has been supervised by cinematographer Renato Berta, there's no question that it accurately reflects his original intentions.

The AVC encode for Au revoir les enfants spans both layers of this BD-50 disc. The film is pillarboxed to preserve its original aspect ratio of 1.66:1.

Au revoir les enfants presents its original French soundtrack in uncompressed mono, and the end result is expectedly wonderful as well. The film's dialogue is consistently reproduced cleanly and clearly, and the audio isn't marred by the slightest flicker of distortion or unwelcome background noise. Though Au revoir les enfants is, of course, most intensely driven by its dialogue and performances, the range of its dynamics is expansive when called for, such as the resounding impact of the bombings overhead. As ever, the care and consideration invested in this presentation is unmistakeable, and I'm left without any complaints or criticism whatsoever.

Optional English subtitles are enabled by default.

All of the additional material
[click on the thumbnail to enlarge]
on this Blu-ray disc has been upscaled to 1080i from standard definition sources.
  • Louis Malle at AFI (53 min.; audio only): An hour-long lecture of Malle's from 1988 -- conducted in English, by the way -- is the centerpiece of the disc's extras. Though this conversation isn't entirely oriented around Au revoir les enfants, it is the dominant subject, and a number of Malle's comments about Lacombe, Lucien apply just as much to this film as well. Among the numerous highlights are Malle's revelation of viewing the camera as a character in its own right, how he loves working with children but not seasoned child actors, struggling with issues in screenplays that aren't evident until the performances start to take shape, and the necessity of trust and close collaboration with his sound team. This is a terrific lecture and a worthy substitute for a traditional audio commentary.

  • Interviews (44 min.; SD): The first of the disc's interviews is with Pierre Billard, the author of the biography Louis Malle: Le rebelle solitaire. This half-hour conversation encompasses the entirety of Malle's life and career. As Au revoir les enfants draws deeply from Malle's childhood, such context does offer a great deal of insight, and Billard takes care to further note how Malle's disinterest in rules and conventions in his youth would go on to shape his outlook as a filmmaker. Billard's comments about Au revoir les enfants include its status as Malle's homecoming film after working in the U.S. for the better part of a decade, contrasting the small scale of this project with the enormity of the Holocaust, and how Malle retrofitted the screenplay into his own recollections of the events of his childhood.

    Following afterwards is a thirteen minute interview with the late filmmaker's wife, Candice Bergen. She delves deeply into Malle's fascination with film, one that compelled him to sample and explore. Bergen then discusses the perception of Malle in his native France, how it was tainted by Malle's move to the United States, and the impact Au revoir les enfants had in rectifying that. I particularly enjoyed hearing how Malle would select the best takes with his eyes he instinctively knew a take that sounded right would inevitably be the one to choose. A smattering of behind-the-scenes footage is briefly glimpsed, as are some photographs taken by Bergen during production, footage of Au revoir les enfants' strong showings at award ceremonies the world over, and even marked-up pages of an original copy of the
    Au revoir les enfants marks the feature film debut of Irène Jacob as well.

    [click on the thumbnail to enlarge]

  • Joseph: A Character Study (5 min.; SD): This feature focuses on one of Au revoir les enfants' most fascinating characters: Joseph (Francois Negret), a handicapped young man who serves as the students' gateway to the black market. Among the topics discussed are what separates Joseph from other characters with less-than-desirable associations, how the school represents both the charity and cruelty in his life, and the strength he draws from sneering at or lording over everyone in lesser positions of power.

  • The Immigrant (25 min.; SD): Charlie Chaplin's 1917 comedy is memorably excerpted in Au revoir les enfants -- in a sequence that's both joyous and haunting -- and the film is presented in full as an extra for this Blu-ray disc.

  • Promotional Material (3 min.; SD): Finally, both a teaser and the full theatrical trailer for Au revoir les enfants are offered as well.

The disc's liner notes feature essays by Philip Kemp and Francis J. Murphy.

Copyright 2020 Inc. All Rights Reserved. Legal Info, Privacy Policy is a Trademark of Inc.