In the occupied Vichy France of 1943, a worried, pre-adolescent, Julien Quentin (Gaspard Manesse), clings to his doting mother (Francine Racette), hiding in her smothering fur coat as she pleads with him to board the train and join his friends. Much to his mother's chagrin, the older brother, Francois (Stanislas Carre De Malberg), mocks young Julien and then quickly boards the train, embarrassed by the scene. Finally, a petulant Julien reluctantly releases his mother's embrace and boards the train that will take the wealthy brothers from Paris back to the Catholic boarding school they attend in the countryside.
The train ride seems to transform Julien, who resumes a pushy, unflappable image he presents to his peers and settles back into the routine of his classes. Within a few days, the monotony is interrupted by the headmaster's introduction of three new students. One of the three is Jean Bonnett (Raphael Fejto), who is in Julien's grade and is assigned the bed next to his. Like the other boys, Julien picks on Jean at first, but eventually, a quiet friendship of sharing books and sports develops.
As the friendship grows, secrets are acknowledged between the boys. Jean learns Julien is a bed wetter who longs to be back in Paris with his parents, and Julien learns something far more dangerous about his new friend. Jean’s real last name is Kippelstein. He is a Jewish boy hiding from the German soldiers. The headmaster, part of a resistant team, has secretly enrolled three Jewish boys who have managed to escape being sent to concentration camps. While the largely autobiographical, traumatic experience of a school boy who befriends a doomed fellow student during World War II remained close to director Louis Malle his entire life, he made Au Revoir Les Enfants (1987) later in his career. “He wanted to be ready,” notes his widow, American actress Candice Bergen, in an interview included in the supplemental section of The Criterion Collection Blu-ray release of this poignant drama. Malle admitted he wanted to feel mature enough as a filmmaker to mount this sensitive material. The prolific French filmmaker decided to film the story after a particularly bad commercial and critical failure making American films in the mid 1980s.
Returning to France, away from the larger crews and big production staffs he so disliked in the United States, Malle culled a small crew of just over a dozen collaborators to create his most personal film. A cinematographer in his own right, Malle brought cinematographer Renato Berta (Smoking/No Smoking) on board for his reputation as a strong collaborator. Malle notes in the supplements that as a former cinematographer,“I knew exactly what he (Berta) was doing,” and “I encouraged him to show me his ideas and really participate.” Both artists worked well together and again collaborated on May Fools in 1990. The crisp, somber imagery of Au Revoir Les Enfants was awarded the French Cesar Award for Best Cinematography of 1987.
The Criterion Collection Blu-ray debut of this popular French title presents an image transfer personally supervised and approved by Berta. With excellent reproduction of the film's dark color palette, the high-definition transfer is a richly detailed presentation. Blacks are solid, with good shadows, and although film grain is evident throughout, it is well balanced without visible DNR and always feels organic. Although Criterion had produced a reasonable standard-def DVD in 2005, the image here is richer, revealing crisp details and contrasts that occasionally were problematic or lost in darker scenes on the previous transfer. The monaural audio track is solid, with good resonance and clarity.
All of the supplements from the 2005 standard-definition DVD are reproduced on the Blu-ray. These standard-def supplements include a 30-minute video interview with French critic Pierre Billard, a 14-minute interview with Bergen, nearly an hour of audio interviews with Malle from 1988, trailers and a presentation of Charlie Chaplin's classic comedy The Immigrant (1917,) which plays a significant role in the film. There are also two printed essays and an interesting, if peculiar, six-minute piece with Prof. Guy Magen of the University of Paris discussing the film's anti-hero, Joseph.
Consistently proving himself as a director who was hard to categorize, Malle easily morphed from French New Wave darling, with such films as Elevator to the Gallows and The Lovers (1958), to screen activist with Phantom India (1969) and Lacombe, Lucien (1974), to scandalous provocateur with Murmur of the Heart (1971) and Pretty Baby (1978), to international-award winner with Atlantic City (1980) and Au Revoir Les Enfants (1987). As the prolific director made numerous narrative and documentary films with success around the world and even in Hollywood, it is perhaps the final fleeting moments of Au Revoir Les Enfants, reenacting those Malle felt were the most devastating of his young life, that will live on and stand above the rest of his work. This quietly moving and exceptionally well directed portrait of friendship in the face of one of history's darkest periods is always worth revisiting and, on this Blu-ray release looks even better than remembered.