Au Revoir Les Enfants – Louis Malle
This post is the third in a series of essays for The Cineastes group. The Gambler was curated by Edouard Hill at Allan Gray’s Imagination. You can find links to the other articles in the series from here.
When I was a child, I remember being vaguely aware of what every youngster knows as “grownup movies”. They’re the ones your parents watch after you’ve gone to bed, or in the den with the door closed, curled up with a glass of wine. Don’t get me wrong, the aura that surrounds these films is not necessarily one of naughtiness or forbidden content, ie. something “you kids shouldn’t be watching.” For a child of the 80s, that distinction belonged to films like “Nightmare on Elm Street” or “The Gate”, basically kids’ films that were full of bloody, gorey thrills that would keep you up past your bed time, teeth chattering but unable to rip your eyes away from the screen. No, these “grownup movies” were more likely to be films that had no purchase in kid reality: high concept films, films about the dust and grit of everyday life, films about manipulative adult relationships — these areas appear somewhere far outside fo the realm of childhood and are therefore boring to a small mind longing for monsters, talking animals, flying carpets, and playground bullies brought to justice. So when my parents rented “The Accidental Tourist” or “Fatal Attraction”, I usually wandered off to play with my toys or colour pictures or some more interesting faire.
Occasionally, however, they would watch a “grownup movie” whose protagonists also happened to be children. These were often bildsungsroman/”coming of age” films – childhood seen through the lens of adulthood – and therefore held a kind of peculiar intrigue. These were films that seemed within the auspices of childhood, but were also somehow outside of it, and that double occupancy often drew me to them, pushing the limits of my own awareness and settling indelibly on my young brain, even if there were elements which made no kind of sense to me at the time. One such film was “My Life As A Dog”, which I first saw in 1988, and another was Louis Malle’s “Au Revoir L’Enfants”.
I mention all of this because Au Revoir L’Enfants is a movie that is itself concerned with that very shaky line between a child’s and an adult’s understanding of the world. When we first meet our young protagonist, Julien Quentin, he is crying into his shoulder at the train station, begging her not to make him go back to boarding school. There is nothing brattish or sissy about his manner, but he is picked on for his sensitivity by his older brother, who speaks to their mother with only half-disguised contempt.