As we reach our teen years, world events start to play a bigger part in our lives in the classroom.
When I entered middle school back in 2000 (!), more people were talking about the election, only to be followed a year later by the 9/11 attacks. I can only imagine what the talks will be like with young people now regarding the COVID-19 pandemic (especially those like my brother Jackson who are in the graduating class of 2020). These were evident in my mind as I was watching Louis Malle’s Au Revoir les Enfants, a reflection of his own childhood during World War II in France.
Malle’s film (which translated is “Goodbye, Children”) focuses on the new semester of a Catholic boarding school, told mainly through the eyes of young Julien Quentin (Gaspard Manesse). About the age of 12 or 13, Julien is one of the brighter students of his class, yet still prone to cracking jokes and causing mild mischief. As any child would be at that age (regardless of when they lived), he acts tough around his friends but is still vunerable around his mother (his father is always at work).
Things change in the semester when a new student arrives: Jean Bonnet (Raphael Fejto). As is the case in all schools in society, he is picked on from the get go. He becomes Julien’s bunk mate, and eventual academic rival. It is only when a secret begins to be revealed that the two become eventual friends.
As stated before, this is a reflection of writer/director Malle’s own childhood (he is the Julien character). It is therefore evident that all minor details are completely accurate. The trading with the kitchen assistant Joseph (Francois Negret) of his mother’s jam for stamps, talking about the latest books read, smoking in secret, deep conversations (“I’m the only one in this school that thinks about death.”, Julien says), and the countless times of not paying attention in class (admit it, we all are guilty of this at least once in our childhood).
I truly admire how Malle takes his time to even mention world events. Though it can be rather easy to guess what time the film takes place in (mainly due to the production and costume design), it is not until around the 40 minute mark when kids even mention Hitler. Why is that? Simple. The movie is not about what is happening outside the school, but what is happening inside.
Parents, it is rather somewhat surprising to learn the film is PG. I would say it is one of the more “hard” PG films I have seen. That is not to say there is visible nudity/sexuality or anything. The boys basically talk about it a lot (as many are prone to at that age), not to mention the casual swearing all boys that age tend to do. The whole subject matter of the film makes me feel it should have been PG-13.
All the events of the film lead to a brief moment where one of the boys makes one simple, fatal mistake. Some viewers may be prone to accusation, wondering how he could do such a thing. While that reaction to accuse is understandable, we need to stop and think: How many mistakes as kids did we make that we regretted afterward? I doubt anyone would be truthful if they did not say at least one.
Though the consequences may not be as severe as those in the film, we still remember them years later. To be clear, I am not talking about the ones we look back on and laugh (none of those “kids say the darndest things” moments and the like). I am talking about the ones that fill you with remorse and that, even years later, you are still not entirely sure if you have completely forgiven yourself.
When the film ends (and we are done dabbing our teary eyes), we eventually remember that to err is truly human. Now to the next part, where to forgive is utterly divine.