Generally speaking, Louis Malle’s films are a little too restrained for my taste, but as with most things, there are exceptions. With Malle the exception is his semiautobiographical 1987 work, Au Revoir, Les Enfants, a film where his restraint is less pronounced than usual. Malle’s approach is perfectly suited to the subject — not in the least because his deliberate pacing conveys a child’s sense of time, capturing the feeling that three short weeks seem like an eternity to the young.
The story is based on memories of a Catholic boarding school in the last part of World War II, and of an incident when three Jewish children disguised as gentiles were hidden there by the priests. In the film, one of these boys, Jean Bonnet/Kippelstein (Raphael Fetjoe), becomes both academic rival and friend to the main character, Julien Quentin (Gaspard Manesse). Realizing only that there is something different about his new friend, Julien barely comprehends the concept of race and cannot understand why Jews should be hated. Of course, these things don’t come naturally, they have to be taught. That’s at the core of the film, but the thrust of the story has more to do with childhood guilt — real and imagined.
The film is ambiguous as to whether or not Julien is actually responsible for accidentally giving away the secret he pieces together about his friend. But it is not ambiguous about the burden of guilt, or about the potential danger that comes with being innocent.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke