American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
Which of us cannot remember a moment when we did or said precisely the wrong thing, irretrievably, irreparably? The instant the action was completed or the words were spoken we burned with shame and regret, but what we had done never could be repaired. Such moments are rare, and they occur most often in childhood, before we have been trained to think before we act. “Au revoir les enfants” (“Goodbye, Children”) is a film about such a moment, about a quick, unthinking glance that may have cost four people their lives.
The film was written and directed by Louis Malle, who based it on a childhood memory. Judging by the tears I saw streaming down his face on the night the film was shown at the Telluride Film Festival, the memory has caused him pain for many years. His story takes place in 1944, in a Catholic boarding school in Nazi-occupied France. At the start of a new semester, three new students are enrolled, and we realize immediately that they are Jews, disguised with new names and identities in an attempt to hide them from the Nazis.
To Julien Quentin (Gaspard Manesse), however, this is not at all obvious. Julien, who is intended to be Malle’s autobiographical double, does not quite understand all of the distinctions involving Jews and gentiles in a country run by Nazis. All he knows is that he likes one of the new boys, Jean Bonnet (Raphael Fejto), and they become friends.
Jean is not popular with the other students, who follow the age-old schoolboy practice of closing ranks against newcomers. But then, Julien is not very popular, either. The two boys are a little dreamy and thoughtful, absorbed in themselves and their imaginations, as bright adolescents should be.