Louis Malle's "Au Revoir Les Enfants," which is his first French film in a decade, is a masterful companion piece to "Lacombe, Lucien," his 1973 drama that traced a cloddish, provincial teen-ager's embracing of Nazism and eventual awakening to the concepts of good and evil. It has the subtlety and devastating impact of Renoir's prophetic classic "Rules of the Game," and it is suffused with the calm, detached tragic irony and inevitability of the ancient Greek plays.
This superb, semi-autobiographical film, which opens today at the Music Hall for a one-week Oscar-qualifying run, takes us into the ordered but kindly world of a French provincial Catholic boarding school for boys.
The school is an ancient, creaky place in the country in which the younger students all wear navy-blue short pants with knee-high socks even in winter, and sleep in one large, gloomy room in simple iron-frame beds. The boys snap to attention in class, work out their aggressions at recess and take their showers at a public bath in the nearby town. The rigor of daily life is tempered by the warmth and patience of the school's dedicated priests. "Au Revoir Les Enfants" comes alive in the darkly rich images of cinematographer Renato Berta.
Malle, in short, establishes an inviting atmosphere of affectionately remembered normalcy while gradually making us aware that the time in which his story is set is anything but normal. It's January, 1944, and the headmaster, Father Jean (Philippe Morier-Genoud), is having to make do with meager rations--and even less heat--for his pupils. Yet his school seems far removed from the dangers of Occupied France, and it's a jolt when we glimpse through a window a young German soldier politely asking one of the priests to hear his confession, or when we hear the wail of an air-raid siren.
Such reactions are part of Malle's grand but understated strategy in telling a tale of innocence and betrayal in which a pervasive anti-Semitism emerges as deeply embedded in the fabric of French society. One youth, upon seeing a man with a yellow star sewn on his topcoat emerge from the public bath, remarks, "He's got his nerve." Another boy is overheard saying, with regard to the Occupation, "Better the Krauts than the Jews or the Communists."
Malle's alter-ego is Julien Quentin (Gaspard Manesse), a rich, bright, self-possessed boy of 12, who in time forms a friendship with one of the school's three new midterm pupils, Jean Bonnet (Raphael Fejto), who's an even better student than Julien but whose personality has a stoic, resigned quality that makes him seem far older than his years.
We realize long before Julien does that Jean is Jewish, and that the priests are trying to hide him and the other two new pupils, who are also Jewish, from the Gestapo.
Manesse and Fejto, who possess that gravity so seemingly characteristic of French youth, astonish us with the maturity of their performances. Francine Racette is Julien's chic, frivolous yet loving mother, and Francois Negret has the pivotal role as a young kitchen helper incapable of comprehending the meaning of his petty act of revenge.
So flawless and overwhelming is this film that it is tempting to call it Louis Malle's masterpiece, but this would be to overlook not only "Lacombe, Lucien" but also "Atlantic City." It's enough to say that "Au Revoir Les Enfants" (Times-rated Mature), which is France's entry in the Oscar race for best foreign-language film, is one of the best films of this or any other year.