Director and Screenplay: Louis Malle
Starring: Gaspard Manesse and Raphaël Fejtö
Images from 2006 Criterion release.
The difference between narrative and plot is such an important one that it's frustrating to see movies stress the latter at the expense of the former. Plot hardly guarantees a compelling narrative, and too often, the feel of the story is lost in the mechanics. How refreshing then, to see Au Revoir les Enfants again; a movie that tells its story through character and atmosphere, not plot. Rather than create melodrama, Au Revoir builds understanding through loosely connected vignettes shot from the wide-eyed innocence of a schoolboy. A very naturalistic way of storytelling, this method develops characters as we would actually get to know them. Movies too often give us shallow fantasies with simplified, yet attractive caricatures; slices of wish-fulfillment that have little bearing to reality. In truth, we rarely get acquainted with people through a singular plot of connected events, but through random, loosely connected encounters. Thus, it makes sense that Au Revoir gives us such a strong understanding and feel for its characters. This is a movie that makes the apparatus of movies disappear; pulling us into a specific time and place and a hardened reality.
It is the characterization that makes Au Revoir so compelling. The schoolboys are self-absorbed; not yet capable of comprehending the bigotry and violence of the period (and to an extent, can we?). To them, an air raid doesn't inspire fear, but is rather a welcome reprieve from the stuffiness of the classroom. When they shelter themselves in the cellar, Jean Bonnet asks Julien for some light, but Julien refuses, burying himself still further in his book. There is little self-sacrifice or altruism to be had, and among the children, there is none. This isn't in itself blameworthy, but a natural tendency in our adolescent years. It is but one facet of the human condition. Even Jean, who is more awake to the dangers Jews must face, doesn't act with the responsibility of an adult. To imbue him completely with solemn-faced maturity would be to deny him any semblance of humanity. This humanity rings true when, during an air raid, Jean and Julien ditch the safety of the cellar to play jazz duets on the piano.
Such a moment is so easily exploited for melodrama that it is a relief when it passes inconsequentially. Instead of having the priests reprimand Jean and Julien, the film quietly cuts to the next scene. There are many moments like this in Au Revoir; where the action can be pushed into melodramatic confrontation. Such handling of these situations would destroy the evocative sense the movie brings. This is a picture set in the past, and is more of a recalling of events long gone than an immediate, cohesive, in-your-face plot progression. Which isn't to say that plot is irrelevant; just that it's not insisted upon.
For me, the implications of plot come in hindsight long after the movie has ended. Only much later did I realize the magnitude of Julien's actions, for instance. By participating in the black market, he helped encourage Joseph to steal from the kitchen. Father Pere Jean fires Joseph but simply gives Julien and the other black market conspirators a slap on the wrist. Joseph then collaborates with the Gestapo officers, who take away Jean Bonnet and two other Jews Father Pere Jean was harboring. Joseph, too, is looking out for his own self-interest; uneasily limping in his brand new Gestapo-bought trenchcoat and accusing Julien of piety.
This way of handling its material is precisely what make Au Revoir such a strongly subjective experience. By understating events, the movie channels Julien's own train of thought. His evocation of old memories is muted because that's how he remembers them; not with shocking emotional clarity but with a quiet experience of events he didn't fully comprehend at the time. Details and subtle glances he didn't think much of then now resonate like earthquakes, as they do for us. When the Gestapo officer asks for Jean Kippelstein, it is, perhaps, Julien's slight glance toward Jean that gave his new friend away. I hardly noticed the action, but the more I thought about it, the more significant it became.
There are great movies that make the camera come alive and great movies that make it disappear. Au Revoir is the latter; making the screen disappear entirely and fully integrating the viewer into the movie's world. Too often, emphasis on mise en scene and "cinematic language" dominate the evaluation of a movie. Yet analyses dependent on these devices alone, while fascinating, rarely point out what really affects us about these pictures. While the value of such observations shouldn't be ignored, they can't be the sole source of meaning. Roger Ebert is proud of his "cinema interruptus," but shot-by-shot analysis is a coldly intellectual process that distances the viewer from the material. It becomes too much of a game; trying to decided what the director's "intentions" were and the feel of the story gets lost, not in the mechanics of plot this time but the mechanics of moviemaking itself.
The point is, there are movies that such analysis works for, and others that it doesn't. Au Revoir doesn't need to be analyzed to death; it doesn't need to be gutted like a fish so that writers can prove they know how a film is put together. If anything, shot-by-shot analysis destroys the beauty of Au Revoir les Enfants by intellectualizing emotion. Which isn't to say the movie precludes discussion; if anything, it should promote it.
Au Revoir les Enfants provides audiences with a way of conversing about past experiences that we didn't fully comprehend at the time. Too often, we let events pass by without action or serious thought; proving that we're unaware of their significance. Such blissful naivete seems to be a characteristic of childhood, but now I'm not so sure. Even as adults, we seem to live in a dream world; our social lives are governed by rules and etiquette. Emotion does not lie on the surface but through implication and subtle, sideways expressions.
This code prevents us from fully accepting the present at face value. How often have we misinterpreted an event? How often have we failed to see the frustration or anxiety in a person's face or body language because we were so wrapped up in how we were being perceived? As Octave from The Rules of the Game said: "The awful thing about life is this: Everyone has their reasons." These reasons prevent us from acknowledging the reality and immediacy of the present.
But if The Rules of the Game approaches these rules and preconceptions like a house of cards to be toppled, Au Revoir adopts a less polemical and scathing angle. Both movies show events governed by the same principles of human behavior: self-interest. But their approach is radically different. With The Rules of the Game, there's the immediacy, rush, and lust of the present moment. Au Revoir, on the other hand, is quieter and more reflective.
The movie doesn't attack its subjects but contemplates them. The title is perhaps a way of acknowledging the passage of childish whims and fantasies; an adieu that is not a rebuke or form of self-flagellation for childhood mistakes, but more like a confession. The sin here is not malevolence but ignorance. The day Jean Bonnet is taken away, so are Julien's childhood notions of invulnerability. It didn't occur to him that a friend could simply vanish like that. Yet Au Revoir ultimately isn't a pessimistic or nihilistic work; it's humanist. Simply, asking for genuine forgiveness is an act of empathy.