Blu-ray Review: Au Revoir Les Enfants

Young Julien would rather stay with his mother in Paris than go to his provincial Catholic boarding school. But in the fall of 1944, he has no choice. Slowly, he begins to realize that there’s something odd about Jean, the new boy in his class–the one the monks who run the school seem to be protecting from something. Before winter is over, Julien will make a new friend and lose him in the worst possible way . He’s also going to learn a few things about courage, powerlessness, and what would eventually be called the Holocaust.

I have not seen all of Louis Malle’s films, but Au Revoir Les Enfants is easily the best I’ve seen. By concentrating on the day-to-day routines of an occupied people allowed to live something like a normal life, and then showing that life getting interrupted but not destroyed (at least not for the majority), it’s one of the most effective films ever made about genocide. While fiction, it’s based on an episode from Malle’s own childhood.

Although the kids bully each other and play pranks, this boy’s school doesn’t seem so bad. The monks running it are strict, but they genuinely care about the boys. The sexual abuse we’ve come to associate with Catholic schools isn’t visible here. Even the occupying German soldiers seem like decent folk and good Catholics. If they don’t socialize with their French wards, it’s because the civilians rightly want nothing to do with them.

Malle wisely starts out concentrating on the normality of school life. We see the kids at study, and play, and at breaking the rules in a dozen relatively innocent ways. But as the school year continues, our young protagonist slowly realizes that something very abnormal is happening. The monks and other school employees are hiding Jewish boys in their midst, risking their own lives for no other reason than that’s the right thing to do. Life is not normal. It’s horrifying.

The title has a double meaning. It’s an important line in the last scene of the film. But it also suggests that these students will never totally enjoy the innocence of childhood again.

1987 was the year for autobiographical films about growing up in World War II. In addition to Au Revoir Les Enfants, John Boorman recalled his childhood in blitz-ravaged London in Hope and Glory. Woody Allen nostalgically returned to a New York far from the battles in Radio Days. And Steven Spielberg–born too late to have WWII memories–filmed J.G. Ballard’s autobiographical novel about growing up in a Japanize prison camp, Empire of the Sun.

How Does It Look?

Criterion does its usual exemplary job on the video transfer. Scanned off the original camera negative in a transfer supervised by cinematographer Renato Berta, this disc looks like a brand-new 35mm print. The colors are subtle and low-key (the film is set in fall and winter, after all), yet with an inner warmth you would expect from photo chemicals, not digital pixels.

This isn’t a demo disc–I wouldn’t use it to show off my home theater. But it fully uses Blu-ray’s capabilities to show you the best possible home version of Au Revoir Les Enfants.

How Does It Sound?

This disc comes with another of Criterion’s excellent, uncompressed, PCM, high bit-rate mono soundtracks. This is a great way to present pre-digital mono soundtracks in a digital format.

There’s only one problem with it: Au Revoir Les Enfants is not a mono movie. It was originally released in Dolby Stereo. If you watch the closing credits, you will clearly see the Dolby Stereo logo at the end. Criterion really should have presented this film in Dolby 2.0 Surround–they could even have done this with PCM. I have no idea why they didn’t.

Extra Goodies

Criterion didn’t include a commentary track, but there are plenty of other extras.

The best is Charlie Chaplin’s two-reel comedy, “The Immigrant.” There’s a sequence in Au Revoir Les Enfants where the students watch this short classic, which provides Criterion with an excuse to add this comic gem.

Other extras include video monologs with film critic Pierre Billard (in French with subtitles) and Malle’s widow–American actress Candice Bergen. There’s a short discussion on a minor but pivotal character, an hour’s worth of audio interviews with Malle, and two trailers.

The booklet that comes with the disc has two essays.

Au Revoir Les Enfants goes on sale this Tuesday.

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