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Unlikeable Little Squit
on 8 September 2009
Au Revoir Les Enfants is set in a Catholic boys' boarding school in Nazi-occupied France in 1944, and is the story of Julien, an unlikeable little squit whose hair is styled into magnificent curtains that wouldn't look out of place in the palace of Versailles, and his friendship with Jean, who looks uncannily like Dexter Fletcher when he was in Press Gang.
Curtains is a defensive little terrier who'll fight anyone who threatens to pinch his jam, though it's clear that his bravado is a masquerade to cover the fact that he's the least mature of all the boys, desperately missing his mum and regularly soaking his sheets with wee wee water. When Little Dexter joins the school, Curtains is initially aggressive but gradually becomes drawn to him, and when it turns out that Little Dexter has a dark secret - he's a Jew hiding from the Gestapo - Curtains becomes oddly fascinated.
While on the surface Au Revoir Les Enfants is a moving story about friendship and childhood, it's also a metaphor for the treacherous path to adulthood. Amongst the excitement of discovering alcohol, cigarettes, girls and porn, Curtains has to face his fears, lose his selfish streak and generally become a man over the course of a few short weeks.
The title itself is a big clue to the theme of the film, and it's only at the very end that we hear the voice of a 50-something-year-old Curtains, grown up physically but never able to forget the day he lost his innocence and much more, waving farewell to childhood as circumstances force him into manhood before he's ready.
Louis Malle tells his largely autobiographical story efficiently and with a good grasp on what it's like to be a snotty brat at a time when global warfare was less traumatising than wetting the bed, and the whole film is shot in the murky greys of a French winter fading in Malle's memory banks for 40-odd years. And though the acting occasionally leaves a little to be desired, the writing and direction give us all we need to transport ourselves to a time of innocence, curiosity and floppy hair.
Au Revoir Les Enfants isn't the kind of film The Incredible Suit would choose to sit down and watch on a day off from the coal face of bloggery, but it's always worth sitting in someone else's comfort zone for a couple of hours just to see if the indentation left by their bottom is a similar shape to yours. In this case I can safely say that I won't be rushing off to buy a Louis Malle box set, but I'll certainly pay more attention to him in the future. In fact on the strength of this film alone he could easily bring the realism of teen angst to the final Harry Potter film. If he wasn't dead, obviously.