European movie makers have long had a thing for films about children, but not necessarily for children.
Some might call it an obsession, all these cinematic love songs to growing up. But the best directors realize that the simplicity of kids and their feelings make for direct movies able to reflect the adult world in defining ways. See a child's terror and joy in facing everyday life and begin to grasp the ineffable anxiety and satisfactions of the adult.
Francois Truffaut ("The 400 Blows") understood this, and, more recently, Lasse Hallstrom ("My Life as a Dog"), John Boorman ("Hope and Glory") and Jean-Loup Hubert ("Le Grand Chemin") have shown they get it too.
Then there's Louis Malle's "Au Revoir les Enfants" (screening Friday at UC Irvine), a thoroughly honest film based on a few days in the director's life when he was 12. Like Truffaut's "The 400 Blows," it balances the pathos of experience with a journalist's keen eye. Malle tells his story crisply and fondly, and through the naturalness of its emotions, it breaks your heart.
The setting is a Catholic boys school in provincial France, a place of stern-faced but kindly priests and fortress-like walls and burnished wood. The young students study Latin and arithmetic in the spartan classrooms, vent aggression during unruly recesses and get to know each other, slowly, in the bunk room where they all sleep.
Against the seeming casualness of all this is the threat of Nazism. The school is in occupied territory, and it's a little startling to see German jeeps drive by or a Nazi soldier ask a priest to hear his confession. The boys feel the influence and are affected by Nazi propaganda. Most of them have never met a Jew, but some of them say things like "better the Krauts than the Jews or the Communists" to each other in the hallways.
Malle focuses on Julien Quentin (Gaspard Manesse), a self-possessed 12-year-old based on the director's own experiences, and Jean Bonnet (Raphael Fejto), a new boy whom Julien initially rebuffs. When they first meet, Jean asks who he is and Julien replies curtly, "I'm Julien Quentin. Don't mess with me."
Later, they develop a tenuous friendship. When Julien asks Jean if he's ever scared, he answers, "All the time." It's an insightful moment that tells so much of what it's like to be young and small, and it brings them closer.
We discover early on that Jean is Jewish and hiding out in the school with two other Jewish boys. The priests know they'll be taken to the concentration camps and must be protected. Julien begins to decode Jean's mystery, not realizing the danger and only fascinated by the exotic presence of a Jew.
When the inevitable happens and Jean is found out by the Nazis, Julien struggles with the notion of a world where a boy can be taken away by anonymous men. His melancholy epiphany signals manhood and the start of a courageous moral foundation.
The movie is so engrossing because it never slips from the boys' point of view. Malle has coaxed touchingly unaffected performances out of all his young actors, especially Manesse and Fejto, and has been graced by Renato Berta's uncomplicated but purposeful cinematography.
Berta's camera stays with the children and their perspective--we see the students head-on, his camera finding their eyes. It's their vision that shows us this world of looming adults, both intimidating and soothing, and unjust events that confuse and frighten.