Friday, June 05, 2009

Au revoir, les enfants

One of the simplest films I've seen on the Holocaust, Louis Malle tackles the issue not on the war front or in a concentration camp, but at the personal level, more specifically the impact that a war and racism could have on children, one day to become adults. Malle brings his own story to the film, as Au revoir, les enfants (Goodbye, Children) so effectively and touchingly, without being dramatically sentimental, shows the children going out into the world, prematurely with dark stories, guilt on their soul, and living with fear; or children simply marching out to concentration camps with proud defiance, with fear of dying any moment.

It's a story of rivalry and friendship between two bright boys, out of the place in the ordinary bullies around. One, Julien Quentin, precocious, highly intelligent, and fiercely individualistic--and faithless though to be confirmed. The other, Jean Bonnet, talented in whatever he takes up, alone, and under a constant fear--and with bold defiant belief in his religion. The two are dreamers, preferring to do their own activities while even in a class, especially Quentin, and cut off from the rest of the students. Though Bonnet is more so because he's a newcomer and seems to lack the ability to mix up fast; Quentin because he is toss-the-hair, he is proud, and he can only really get attracted to talent higher than his or to genius. As he does to Bonnet. What starts out as a rivalry sensed, soon is in the vein of developing into fine friendship, but ends abruptly with the capture of one and the guilt of the other to regret for ever: if he wouldn't have turned, what would have happened?

The film's beauty lies in that it solely concentrates on the boys: the boarding and school run by the monastery. It doesn't give in to any sort of temptation to strike gold elsewhere. The sole 'outside' incident is the Vichy men's attempt to throw out an old Jewish man out of a posh restaurant: but it still serves as part of school life, since Quentin first knows the extent to which a man could be persecuted for religion. Soon, he is to know more, through searing experience that would maim him for life. And make him a better man. The film also brilliantly shows how difficult it is, how unfair it is to place a dreamer in a boarding school, in a hostel: how suffocating it could be for someone whose best company is his dreams and thoughts, and who is forced to live with fellow students of 'inferior grade'. Completely free of any dramatic intentions, the film is a story that occurred, that culminated in times where the Vichy regime itself was collaborating with the Germans, and French had to fight underground even against their own men. Soon Hitler was to fall, and sanity to return for a brief time: it's to the viewers to wonder what lessons they give to children to carry on in life. Bullying as power; squealing as life; and defying as death.

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