Thursday, February 5, 2015
Louis Malle made Au revoir les enfants, his masterpiece about childhood, set in a French school, in 1987 - the year my family moved to France and I started going to school there. I didn't see it in the cinema at the time because I was six, but a couple of years later it came to be among a handful of bashed-up VCRs my family regularly watched
Au revoir les enfants tells the story of a friendship between two boys - one Catholic, one Jewish - at a boarding school during the Second World War. The film shows the kids at play, in class, and venturing out with their teachers for the odd excursion beyond the school gates. It is shot through with nostalgia for childhood, but is also uncompromising in its examination of loneliness and exclusion. Malle's intuition for the soulfulness of children, the way he grasps their sense of alienation from the world of adults, makes the film poignant and vivid.
The world I went to school in when I arrived in France over forty years after the film's events was in many ways not particularly different. When I watched Au revoir les enfants then, its universe certainly didn't seem foreign or antiquated. The first school I attended, Ecole du Val, a large building with a plain playground at the bottom of town, by an old viaduct, had surely not changed a great deal since the 40s. In class we sat two by two at old twin desks with inkpot holders, and meekly raised our hands to ask to go to the toilet, which was a hole-in-the-ground job at the end of a long and cold tiled corridor. French lessons consisted of dictations and conjugation exercises; Maths, of sums that the teacher would call out and whose results we had to write down fast in chalk on our slates, which we held above our heads. In the canteen, we were served soup from great vats by large dinner ladies. At playtime, children played hopscotch, marbles or skip-rope.
When I arrived I could say 'bonjour', 'au revoir', 'merci beaucoup', 's'il vous plait', 'je m'appelle Caspar' and the numbers from one to ten. I had lived in the countryside in England, and to be propelled from quiet walks in the Blackmore Vale in Somerset to a busy Parisian suburb where I didn't understand anything, felt terribly hard. Teachers were enormous and forbidding - there was none of the Blue Peter-style singing songs and palling around with kids over Play-Doh that my teachers had gone for in England. Educators were strict, and inclined to tell you off or punish you, and school was a place for hard work, from 8.30 to 4.30 every day.
This is, in essence, the world that Malle depicts so brilliantly in Au revoir les enfants: crucially and devastatingly, the film hinges on that sense of displacement that children feel - that, perhaps, specifically French children feel, or felt. This sense that the world of grown-ups is forbidding, that you had better keep your nose out of their affairs, is key. In perhaps the best scene in the film, the main character, Julien, is left behind on a field trip taken by his class, in the enormous forest of Fontainebleau. Malle shows how children depend on grown-ups, are completely reliant on their help, and extracts so much anguish from this scenario. He very intelligently puts the viewer in the skin of the child, showing how although a war is going on, such a quotidian development can of itself be terrifying and devastating to a child. Later, he brilliantly shows how Julien is only dimly aware of events in the school: how the teachers are sheltering his friend Jean and several other Jewish people, and how compromised their existences are. In Malle's world, events in childhood are relatively simple, and it is adults who create terror, who manipulate the truth and hold secrets. When the film's terrible conclusion unfolds, Malle suggests that the act of growing up may simply be the veil of innocence being lifted from your eyes.
When preparing for school trips - my class went on 'Classe de mer' when I was eight, for two weeks - I remember my mother being frazzled by the list of demands. My twin sister and I needed our name printed on labels sewn into all our clothes, had to take a flannel each and our own soap box, were made to pack cagoules and thermal socks and all manner of old and hilarious clobber. We were made to write letters home to our parents every day, which our teacher read before posting "to check for spelling mistakes". Something of it seemed Gradgrind-like, revelling in the olden days, in the way things had always been. Childhood was a rehearsing of the past, built on a curious assimilation of hard education, tradition and high-minded French notions of 'liberty'. This aspect of France comes through in Malle's film, too - in its detail (the old, cold bathrooms in which Julien is left to soak on his own, dwelling on his own loneliness and misery; the harsh music lessons; the formality and strictures of school as well as its sense as a locus for discovery) - as well as in its argument. Malle is extremely stern towards the French, showing the banality of collaboration, the way it flourishes in a society that obeys and doesn't question. At the same time, he sees clearly the good intentions of French school, and laments the way it does not connect with children because it is built on lofty principles that evaporate all too easily.
I learnt French quickly enough; subsequently made friends easily and fast. Even then, French school could be daunting, but at least I was daunted at the same scale as other French children. But memories of being different in a cold, new world, still sometimes remind me of Au revoir les enfants. Weirdly, to this day, I consider my childhood as having taken place before I got to France, when I was innocent, back in England. Before I was six. Growing up takes place in that first burst of sorrow and discomfort.