Anatomy of a Scene: Au Revoir Les Enfants (Scene 20)

Movie Still - Au Revoir Les Enfants (1989)
In Louis Mallé's haunting autobiographical film, Au Revoir Les Enfants (1989), figures come out of the Northern European mist as if half-dead, draped in dark shrouds of black. The setting is not Auschwitz or the Western front, but a small Catholic boarding school outside of Paris, Winter 1944, months before the fall of the Third Reich. Mallé's focus is not the battlefield nor is it the concentration camp, but rather, he focuses his exploration on the effects of racism and evil on the lives of young French adolescents boys holed up in a confined space, apart from their upper-class parents. The school's headmaster, Father Jean, has decided to matriculate three new students at the start of the Winter term. What no one knows is that the three new students are in fact Jewish stowaways, hidden by the school to save their lives. In this scene (scene 20 according to Mallé's screenplay): students are marching to the public baths for their periodic soapy wash. The scene is a mixture of everyday rituals of boarding school life, similar to other scenes in the film, of the boys sleeping, praying, going to class, playing war games, playing the piano, taking tests. The "normal," almost painterly scenes are punctuated by news from the war zone: talk of hatred against Jews, the Resistance, French collaborators with the Germans, and the impending intimidation enforced by the conquering Germans. Rations are scarce. Even the wealthy schoolboys suffer; their only allowance is jam and sugar which they exchange for cigarettes. France is occupied by Germany but the Resistance is rumbling. News of German defeat on the Russian front has been circulating.

The film is based on an actual incident in the life of the director, Louis Mallé when he was a student during the war. The film tells its story through a series of vignettes detailing the everyday life of the school's rhythm as a way to illustrate the unlikely friendship that sprouts between Julien Quentin (Gaspard Manesse) and Jean Bonnet (Raphael Fejtö). In the bathing scene, January 4th, 1944, the two boys huddle close to one another on their way to the bath house, discussing Alexander Dumas' swashbuckler tale, The Three Musketeers: "Milady's trial. She's a real bitch," - amongst the chatter of teachers, classes and who's worse - Jews or Communists. The underlying theme of racism rests at the thin surface of the film's narrative. Walking to a bath, a place of cleansing, it is not too difficult to discern through the subtext the hidden dialogue of racial purity. But the two boys are also en route to a close friendship, not one formed by race or religion, but a shared interest in literature and the arts. The walk to the baths is not in Mallé's published screenplay, so I am guessing it was an add-on during production. The scene illustrates for the first time Julien's interest in Jean as an equal, although we get a tinge of jealousy later on in the scene. When Jean first arrives at the school, Julien spurns him but is later encouraged by Father Jean to form a friendship. Julien is intrigued by Jean. His innocent curiosity to know more about his friend will prove to be tragic later on the film, a moment that Ebert called "an irreparable moment" but now, in this scene, their friendship is at its pure stage. The camera lingers with the boys as they walk long enough for us to see Julien's typically sour face brighten a little. Mallé, who also wrote the script, has the subtle ability to include information occurring at different levels in one interaction, paying close attention to how adolescent boys would normally communicate their feelings and thoughts. The dialogue is paced with the children's walk; we can hear the inaudible background noise of the other boys, but the camera is set to linger with the two protagonists. We hear the sound of the students walking along the gravel, and the occasional commands of Father Michel as he leads the boys. We hear discussion of literature naturally segway into a funny dish about how Julien thinks Math is shit unless you want to be an accountant. Jean responds, "My father was an accountant" (Note the emphasis on "was"). His mother is a "was" too, missing, most likely both are at the camps. The two boys are potential friends, but Julien is envious of Julien's talent. Later in the scene, soaking in the privacy of his tub, the sound of Julien playing Schubert is heard as a soundtrack, the minimal, but effective use of music in this scene.
    The film is bathed in a hue of blueish light. The buildings seem to be in an interminable state of decay. The streets are grimy. Pedestrians peddle by on bikes. The atmosphere is gloomy and uninspiring. The buildings loom as imposing structures. Take, for example, the Municipal Bath House, with its rounded columns and imposing sign on the front doors: "Jews are not allowed" - again, under the not so subtle banner of anti-semitism.
    Students were allowed baths every two weeks (roughly the duration of the film's timeline, give or take a few weeks). The boys share the space with young German soldiers who softly tease at the boys' youth, one teasingly caresses Bonnet's cheek, saying in German, "so fresh, so sweet," as if to take notice of his physical innocence (not yet a man). The irony in the scene is the soldier's remark about the boy's purity, which, as the viewer knows, had he really known, would not have thought Jean so pure. The moment is quick and if you don't pay attention you miss the soldier's soft taunt. The space is reserved for "the clean" and not for Jews. The scene is filled with images of "clean" and dirty. Du Vallier, a plump boy, asks Bonnet why he did not take communion (another way to ask if he is clean).
    Bonnet responds he's a Protestant and another student says, "that's disgusting." The juxtaposition of clean and unclean is reinforced at the end of the scene; a young man puts on a coat, revealing the Star of David on his lapel; a student remarks, "the nerve." Just as Jean can sit properly as a clean agent next to a German soldier, the lines of pure an impure are not so clearly demarcated; a Jew, even in a strictly laid out space, can walk out of a bathhouse clean, although labeled unclean. As Jean, and Julien will soon learn, sometimes people walk out alive and sometimes, the lines are drawn in the sand.
    In the baths, the boys are laid bare, literally and we as viewers are forced ever closer into the reality of the students' living conditions. The boys seem to know that their existence is contingent on the final outcome of the war. The day to day lives of the students is in constant proximity, the looming news of war always present, soldiers sharing their private spaces, injecting innuendo, which is why, perhaps, Mallé slowly pans the camera over Julien as he soaks in his tub, wallowing in his rare moment of solitude, "immersed up to his neck," as it is written in the screenplay:

"he [Julien] has his hands underwater and is gently caressing himself.
A piano is heard - the Schubert piece - and the voice of MLLE DAVENNE:
'You should try the violin.'
There is a knock on the door..." (29).
    Julien hurriedly tries to lather his soap and sinks his head under the water. Afforded the illusion of the private sphere in a world completely exposed and scrutinized, Julien takes advantage of the moment and fantasizes about his music teacher. Julien's fantasy is interrupted by Father Michel who sees Julien in the bath motionless and rushes to pull him out. Julien laughs at the priest, obviously naked (although this is implied, not shown).
    "What a smart aleck! I told you to hurry up..." The priest is embarrassed by Julien's naked body and steps away. "It's not my fault. My soap won't lather." When I first saw the film I didn't understand the sexual innuendo scene. When I watched it again for this anatomy of a scene I realized Julien is playful and precocious, which fits his character; he is afforded a brief moment of excess. The soap he is using is probably war rationed soap, not very good quality, difficult to lather, requiring multiple rubbing to get suds - analogous to masturbation, perhaps - which seems to explain why the priest looks away. Saying it's not my fault, grinning, as if triumphant, is a visual corresponding with other images of sexual awakening depicted in the film: looking at dirty pictures, talking about women's breasts, referring to masturbation in class, crude humor, normal for adolescent boys, but interesting when interlaced with the intrusion of war: its own violent display of male power (see the comment earlier about Bonnet and the German soldier in the bath). The scene ends with a cut to an exterior shot of the boys leaving the bath, commenting on the freezing cold weather.  

Malle, Louis. Au Revoir Les Enfants: A Screenplay. New York: Grove Press, 1988.

--------------, et al. Au revoir les enfants Goodbye, children. [Irvington, N.Y]: Criterion Collection, 2006. 

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