The students at a Catholic boarding school in Vichy, France live a somewhat sheltered life, almost cloistered, shut off from the outside world to a certain degree by the towering stonewalls surrounding the property. Set in early 1944 during occupied France, the kids are returning after Christmas break and find that it's business as usual at their parochial school. The Nazis allow the institution to continue its normal activities as if nothing had changed. The kids are aware of the fact that their country is in the middle of war, reminded every so often by the presence of German soldiers and air raid sirens. But the audience is made to wonder if these youths truly comprehend the severity of what's occurring behind the walls which make up their private, little world.
Louis Malle's brilliantly bitter and poetically pensive drama, 'Au revoir les enfants,' is a perceptive meditation about that very point in adolescence when we realize a larger, more dominant world outside our own. Based on his own personal experience growing up near Fontainebleau, the director shows the boys of the school acting like typical children their age. Some kids are haughty and boisterous, while others are studious and do their own thing. They can also be pranksters and sometimes act the annoying jerk when they tease one another. Like all children, any excuse to skip class is a good one, so they treat air raid drills like an amusing escape from their daily lessons. The boys know of the war, but they don't seem to fully grasp or appreciate its significance.
Julien Quentin (Gaspard Manesse) is one such boy, whose parents send him to the school as if to maintain some semblance of normalcy. A privileged kid who still wets his bed, he begrudges his mother for sending him away and begs at every chance to come home despite explanations that things are very difficult at the moment. Quentin's older brother, François (Stanislas Carré de Malberg), jokes with his mother about dropping out of school and joining the resistance. He's aware of the dangers surrounding them and recognizes collaborators with a sense of revulsion, but he's much too preoccupied with chasing girls to genuinely care. Everything changes when the new kid, Jean Bonnet (Raphaël Fejtö), shows up and a game of capture the flag turns into a deep friendship.
This 1987 film is thought-provoking and methodically paced — a touching narrative that carefully shows the change from an egocentric viewpoint to one aware of the harsh realities of the world. And the story even reaches beyond this awakening to questions of morality. The emphasis is not so much on knowing the difference between right and wrong, good and evil, because the boys can discern at least this much on their own. They conceal risqué pictures, hide from the view of priests to smoke cigarettes, and barter in secret with the kitchen helper, Joseph (François Négret). As he uncovers Bonnet's secret, Quentin is coming to an understanding that the thorny issues of morality are made up of complex abstract ideas where many grays exist. How can Father Jean (Philippe Morier-Genoud) be a criminal for saving lives? And sometimes, Judas lives within our walls of refuge.
The title 'Au revoir les enfants,' which translates to "goodbye, children," is not only in reference to Father Jean's last words to his pupils, but it also signifies their final lesson in life. It is a farewell to their adolescent worldview, to seeing life with innocent eyes. And deeper still, it's a farewell to an understanding of morality in simplistic, black-and-white terms. Louis Malle's reflective film on adolescence is a meditative study on the loss of innocence and the sudden intrusion of adulthood. Nearly twenty-five years later, and thanks to the incredible performances of Gaspard Manesse and Raphaël Fejtö, 'Au revoir les enfants' remains a powerful and poignant motion picture with a different view on the tragedies committed in the days of occupied France.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
This Blu-ray edition of 'Au revoir les enfants' comes courtesy of The Criterion Collection (spine #330) on a Region A locked, BD50 disc and housed in their standard clear keepcase. Accompanying the disc is a 20-page booklet with color pictures of the film. It also features two excellent essays entitled "Childhood's End" by Philip Kemp and "Père Jacques and the Petit-Collège d'Avon" by Francis J. Murphy. There are no trailers or promos before being greeted by the distributor's normal menu options.
As is customary of all titles from The Criterion Collection, the accompanying booklet explains that this 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode was struck from the original 35mm camera negative at 2k resolution and approved by the film's cinematographer Renato Berta. And as always, the effort put forth yields marvelous results for a highly-admired motion picture from Louis Malle.
Presented in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio, this high-def transfer of 'Au revoir les enfants' shows the film as it was intended by its creators, displaying photography that feels cold and rather indifferent. Contrast is somewhat reserved and falls on the softer side to create a grayish, apathetic impression, but whites remain crisp and brilliant throughout. The palette is also a bit restrained, focused more on ordinary renderings that emphasize a bluish overtone and other wintry colors. Black levels are accurate and plentiful with terrific visibility during dimly-lit scenes. Fine object and textural details are excellent and beautifully defined, revealing minor flaws and imperfections in the school's architecture, clothing and various furniture pieces. Displaying a natural and consistent grain structure, the touching drama on adolescence and the loss of youth looks splendid on Blu-ray.
Like the video, the DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack was also made from a 35mm magnetic track, and the end results are again impressive.
Presented in its original mono format, dialogue and quiet, intimate conversations are discernible and precise. The mid-range is clean and sharp with plenty of clarity and detail, allowing for the random daily activities of the school to be clearly heard. The design doesn't come with much bass, but it does exhibit a bit of a low end present during appropriate scenes. Acoustics and fidelity are superb, giving the lossless mix a good deal of presence and warmth.
In the end, 'Au revoir les enfants' sounds superb in higher resolution audio.
Criterion repackages the same assortment of supplements from the 2006 DVD box set that contained three films from Louis Malle.
Louis Malle's 'Au revoir les enfants' is a touching and poignant film about a close friendship between two schoolmates interrupted by the terrible events of World War II. Brilliantly written and executed, the narrative is also a meditative journey on the loss adolescent youth and the sudden intrusion of adulthood. This Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection features a terrific video presentation and very good audio. Loaded with the same extras as the previous DVD release. Highly recommended for such a wonderful film.