In 2006, Criterion released the boxed set "3 Films By Louis Malle," which included "Murmur of the Heart," "Lacombe, Lucien" and "Au revoir les enfants." Each was also released for individual purchase. Now "Au revoir les enfants" is being released by itself on Blu-Ray.
Though Louis Malle's name is widely recognized, his place in the pantheon of great French directors has always been somewhat problematic. He didn't quite fit in with the New Wave directors, and shuttled between France and Hollywood. Though Malle cycled back to certain themes and settings throughout his career, he was an eclectic director both in terms of style and content, making him particularly troublesome for auteurists who want to be able to describe "the typical Malle film." How do you pigeonhole a director who indulges in the surreal lunacy of "Black Moon" (1975) then counters with the static lunacy of "My Dinner with Andre" (1981) a few years later? He was mentored by Bresson, and "Elevator to the Gallows" (1958) bears witness to the influence, but could Bresson have even sat through "Zazie dans le metro" (1960)?
"Au revoir les enfants" (1987) is, I suppose, the closest thing to a "typical Malle film," if only because it can be connected with other semi-autobiographical, coming-of-age tales in his oeuvre. In 2006, Criterion released a three-film set which grouped "Murmur of the Heart" (1971), "Lacombe, Lucien" (1974) and "Au revoir les enfants" on such grounds. Of the group, "Enfants" is the most overtly autobiographical, at least as far as Malle told us.
Set during the latter days of the Nazi occupation in France, the film's action takes place almost entirely at a Catholic boarding school for wealthy French boys. Twelve year old Julien Quentin (Gaspard Manesse) is the smartest kid in class and knows it. His teacher compliments him on his essay but observes that it was a tad "pretentious." It's only natural then that the precocious Julien would feel an instant animosity towards a new student, Jean Bonnet (Raphaël Fejtö), who proves to be his intellectual rival. Julien joins in with the other kids in the time honored tradition of beating the snot out of the new kid, but, in fits and starts, he gradually bonds with Jean over their shared interest in reading and especially after Julien discovers that Bonnet's real last name is actually Kippelstein. Father Jean (Philippe Morier-Genoud), the school's heroic prefect, has risked the school and his own life to hide several Jewish boys from the Nazis.
At the age of eleven, Malle actually witnessed a Gestapo office arrest one of his Jewish schoolmates, and the film is his attempt to recreate the events. He even returned to his actual school for the filming. The school is a hermetic environment which enables the boys to treat the tragic events unfolding around them as a distant joke. They can mock the "filthy Bosch" Louis Lebeau-style because they know their family's wealth (and, in theory, the walls of the school) keep them shielded. At least the non-Jewish boys can. Jean, on the other, lives every moment waiting for the axe to fall. When Julien asks him "Are you scared?" he replies, "All the time." Fejtö conveys this live-wire state vividly through his constantly nervous look and taut posture, manifestations of anxiety that he only drops in rare moments of leisure such as a touching scene when he and Julien hide from an air raid call in order to play the piano together.
Malle (who also wrote the script) reminds us of the German presence (as well as that of French collaborators) sprinkled throughout town on a few occasions, but he spends most of his time observing the students during their daily lives. Simply knowing the threat that constantly lurks outside ratchets up the tension to unbearable levels even as we watch the boys fall into an easy friendship. The threat also lurks within in the form of Joseph (François Négret), an older boy who works as a custodian and is ostracized by the much wealthier students, and the grudge he harbors against them plays a major role in the inevitable unfolding of the tragedy. The final sequence of "Au revoir les enfants" may not be a surprise, but it is one of the most unforgettable achievements of Malle's career.
"Au revoir les enfants" was a surprising box office success in the States and won critical plaudits as well as netting two Oscar nominations, losing Best Foreign Picture to "Babette's Feast."
The film is presented in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio.
Malle and cinematographer Renato Berta shoot many of the scenes inside the school in a subdued, almost monochromatic style (esp. in the dormitory where dozens of white-sheeted beds are arranged within a few feet of each other). The outdoor scenes, however, are very bright. The high-def transfer captures these contrasts more vividly than the already strong SD transfer did. The most noticeable improvement, though, is in the fine grain structure which has a rich, filmic look that isn't really present in the SD. It's funny how you don't even notice things like that until you see the high-def upgrade. Image detail is sharp, but not at the very top end of Criterion's best high-def treatments.
The Blu-Ray is presented with an LPCM Mono track. The lossless sound is typically clean, devoid of any distortion or damage that I could detect. There's not a lot to say about the audio design here, and I don't hear much of a difference between this and the old Dolby Digital track, but there's nothing to complain about either. Optional English subtitles support the French audio.
In the original "3 Films by Louis Malle" boxed set, the extras for all three films were included on a fourth Bonus Disc. All of the extras here are imported from that disc, though this release doesn't include ALL of the extras from the old Bonus Disc, only the ones most relevant to "Au revoir les enfants."
First up is an interview with critic Pierre Billard (31 min), author of "Louis Malle: Le Rebel Solitaire." It was originally recorded in 2005. Billard´s interview is quite informative and helps contextualize Malle´s career. Billard sums it up succinctly: Malle was "a nomad, a vagabond."
Next, the disc includes an interview with actress Candice Bergen, Malle's widow. This 13-minute interview was conducted in 2005. Bergen talks mostly about Malle´s frustration with his lack of critical support during the later stages of his career. I was surprised to learn how upset he was about Vincent Canby´s scathing review of "Alamo Bay" (1985). Apparently, even long-established directors are still sensitive to bad reviews.
"Joseph: A Character Study" (2005, 5 min.) is a short feature by filmmaker Guy Magen in which he traces the development of the controversial character Joseph, unearthing some of the motivations behind his decisions.
The Blu-Ray also offers a lengthy audio interview (53 min.) from Louis Malle's Dec 7, 1988 appearance at the American Film Institute.
As a nifty bonus, Criterion has also included Charlie Chaplin's famous two-reeler "The Immigrant" (1917, 25 min.). The boys watch a clip from the film during a pivotal scene in "Au revoir les enfant."
A Teaser and a Trailer round out the selection of extras.
The 20-page insert booklet (a smaller typeface reprint of the booklet included with the 2006 release) features an essay by critic Philip Kemp and an essay by author Francis J. Murphy about Père Jacques, the real-life priest who served as the inspiration for the character of Father Jean.
The mispronunciation of "Au revoir les enfants" allegedly served as Quentin Tarantino's choice of the title "Reservoir Dogs." The film's legacy is, fortunately, somewhat broader than that, and probably the best of Malle's post-"Andre" works. Malle made three more films before his death in 1995.
The high-def transfer is certainly an upgrade from the SD, but the original was nothing to sneeze at either. The major difference between the original individual SD release is the inclusion of the extras on this disc, which were previously only available on the Bonus Disc in the "3 Films by Louis Malle" set.