Cast: Agathe Rousselle, Vincent Lindon, Garance Marillier, Laïs Salameh, etc.
Cinematography: Ruben Impens
*** THE WHOLE FILM IS A SPOILER ***
The difficult second album syndrome applies with Julie Decournau’s incredibly horrific, illogical and over-rated, Titane (2021). How the film won the Palm D’or at the Cannes Festival is beyond me. Maybe the jury were on the same acid as the ultra-talented writer-director when she created the script. Or, maybe the jury were belatedly rewarding her for the amazing contemporary horror film, Raw (2016).
Raw (2016) works on so many distinct levels with themes covered including: veganism, peer pressure, initiation, fitting in, animal cruelty, sexuality. lesbianism, same-sex attraction, animalism, sisterhood, hedonism, nature versus nurture, cannibalism, family, etc. It crosses genres effortlessly and has one of the greatest and disgusting scenes I have had the pleasure to see for some time. Raw (2016) is a shocking, intelligent and astounding modern-day masterpiece. Titane (2021) unfortunately is not.
Before I say why I did not enjoy Titane (2021), I must say that I constantly seek out challenging cinema that pushes boundaries. I love horror and want to be shocked, but also emotionally involved with the characters at the same time. Moreover, I am well prepared to commit to dream logic and surreal narratives, however, the filmmaker must also try not to over-indulge their artistic excesses, and respect the audience too. Of course, this is just my opinion, but I don’t feel Julie Decournau had a clear story path and rather went hell bent into delivering a variety of different ideas, none of which created a fulfilling emotional journey for the main protagonist, Alexia (Agatha Rouselle).
Rouselle, as the malevolent and tragic conduit of Ducournau’s twisted vision, does give a spectacularly brave performance. But her character is given so many complex set-ups at the beginning, I quickly gave up caring what happened to her. As a child she is badly injured in a car crash. This gives her a titanium plate in the skull. Alexia grows up and is an exotic dancer who either dreams of, or actually fucks cars. Oh, she is also a serial killer who violently kills for no apparent reason. Several gruesome set-pieces result in the goriest deaths ever seen in a Palm D’or winner. Indeed, by the time Alexia goes on the run and smashes her face into a sink to alter her features I was numbed by it all.
Titane (2021) at the midpoint then delivers one of the most dumb and insulting plot shifts I have seen in recent years. Yes-yes it’s an arthouse film and an expression of Julie Decournau’s vision of humanity, but I DID NOT CARE!! Not only did we get Alexia’s horrific behaviour, we are then introduced to another plot turn when she hides out with a bereaved and emotionally scarred firefighter, Vincent (Vincent Lindon). By this time I was actually laughing at certain scenes, finding it all tiresome and frankly embarrassing. I got the symbolism of human beings as machines and exploitation of females and that family represents death and blah-blah-blah! Yet, and I’m likely to be in the minority, Titane (2021) is one of the most narratively, emotionally and visually exhausting films I have seen in some time. Watch at your peril!
I haven’t seen any of Celine Sciamma’s previous films, but based on the romantic drama, Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019), she is a filmmaker of formidable power and vision. I believe this is her fourth feature film directorial release and it is as sumptuous, moving, exquisitely shot and constructed a love story as you are going to witness. Moreover, it is proof that the art of screenwriting, compared to many by-the-numbers Hollywood film productions, is NOT dead.
The story is very simple. At the end of the 18th century, a young painter, Marianne, (Noemie Merlant) is commissioned to create a portrait of a young woman, Heloise (Adele Haenel). Heloise is, as is the tradition of the time, required by her mother (Valeria Golino), to marry a Milanese nobleman. He needs to see the portrait in advance in order to agree to the wedding. The only catch is, the insular Heloise, does not want to be painted for all manner of understandable reasons. What this establishes is two very intriguing characters, both with different emotions and desires.
Following the beautifully rendered story foundation, what follows is a magnetic series of scenes which subtly push these two empathetic characters together. Marianne is the artist who, at first keeps her distance, spying and analysing Heloise. Heloise is cool, sensitive and a prisoner on the Brittany island, trapped by the waves of the sea and her mother’s insistence on a society wedding. Over the space of a few days the walking companions become drawn to each other both artistically and emotionally. But, it’s no sordid desire for lust, rather a respectful and honest joining in romance. We, as the audience, literally see love grow before us thanks to some incredible acting from the leads.
Often the cinema critics will heap praise on a film and I will wonder what they have been watching. However, in regard to both Parasite (2019) and Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019), the plaudits are so well deserved. Both are brilliantly written and shot works of cinema, that in the past may have been consigned to just the arthouse circuit. Further, given the film is about painting, it is unsurprisingly Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019) is framed, lit and composed with an eye for the artistic. Yet, it isn’t just the look and colour of the film that impresses. Sciamma and her cinematographer, Claire Mathon, also create a series of haunting shots which will be indelibly scorched on my mind.
In terms of the themes, the film is very powerful too. As well the notion of art as a means of representing love, the narrative explores concepts of female equality and solidarity. There is an interesting subplot involving a member of the household staff, which adds to the thematic texture. Furthermore, the performances by all the actresses are superb too as Sciamma directs with such confidence. I also liked that the critique of patriarchal society was implicit rather than didactic. Also subtly realised are the tasteful love scenes, which never feel exploitational. My only minor criticism is that the opening hour could, arguably, have been trimmed slightly. However, what do you leave out of a film as beautifully composed, delicately written and emotionally compelling as Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)? I, a mere mortal, am not qualified to say in the face of such mesmerizing cinema.
WRITER: DAVID BIRKE based on the novel Oh by Phillipe Dijan
CAST: ISABEL HUPPERT, LAURENT LAFITTE, ANNE CONSIGNY, CHARLES BERLING, VIRGINIE EFIRA
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
Where do I begin with this film? Is it a comedy? Is it a satire? Is it a drama? Is it a horror film? Well, all of the above I would say and then some. For starters Isabel Huppert SHOULD have won the Oscar for best actress over the candy floss performance of Emma Stone. That genuinely was a first world artistic travesty! Huppert is absolutely sensational as the damaged anti-heroine who having been part of a horrific childhood event is then subjected to a vicious sexual attack in the very first scene. Thus, immediately the film brutalises the main character and makes the audience complicit with her subsequent actions which are complex to say the least. Because as a successful business-woman with a murky past she doesn’t go down the route of victim but rather something completely different.
As it’s directed by the rambunctious cinema satirist Paul Verhoeven I expected a difficult yet entertaining ride, however, this film at times was painful to watch and not what I would call easy entertainment at all. In fact, I’m surprised there hasn’t been more controversy or outrage from the liberal left in the queasy representation of sexual violence. Don’t get me wrong there is a lot to like about the film, especially: the darkly humorous screenplay; the hilarious representations of bourgeois-middle-class-family life; and the unexpected twists in the plots take the breath away. Yet, both male and female humiliation is at the heart of the story and Huppert’s character is kind of unlikeable, making it is difficult to get behind many of her decisions.
Overall, Elle has been laden with awards and received much critical acclaim and I can certainly confirm it is a brave and challenging character drama with very risky themes at its heart. My interpretation is that the writer and filmmakers have a nihilistic view of the French bourgeoisie and that humanity in general is full of damaged lunatics out for what they can get. Essentially too, Huppert’s character has been ruined by the actions of men and her motivations are borne out of trying to gain control of a horrific situation. Thus, I would recommend this film for those who prefer their cinema to challenge, shock and question the nature of sexual politics, rather than spoon feed us fluffy and patriarchal love stories. Because, mainly, this is not a love story but rather one of hate.
(Mark: 8 out of 11 for the film)
(Mark: 11 out of 11 for Isabelle Huppert)
April was a mixed bag of viewings on the various platforms this month, with a couple of stunning films, decent stand-up comedy and my new favourite TV show witnessed. So, with marks-of-eleven, here are my latest reviews. Enjoy.
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
ANOMALISA (2015) – CINEMA
I love Charlie Kaufman’s work as he offers one of the most original minds to writing and directing films. Anomalisa is a stop-motion animation character study which is breath-taking in style and thought-provoking in content. David Thewlis voices a writer who, while in a small American town to deliver a key motivational speech, he finds his personality and mind dismantling before him. The film is at times a challenging experience but Kaufman’s conceptual genius, splashes of droll humour and spicy sex scenes make it a worthy arthouse hit. (Mark: 8 out of 11)
BLOODY SUNDAY (2002) – NETFLIX
Director Paul Greengrass’ excellent docu-drama depicts the tragic deaths of the infamous bloody massacre which took place Sunday on January 30, 1972 when 27 civilians were gunned down by the British Army in the streets of Northern Ireland. It’s heartbreaking and powerful drama as the day unfolds in real time and chilling authenticity. The cover-up by the British Government was a disgrace and this stands as a testament to those who tragically lost their lives. (Mark: 8 out of 11)
CHILD 44 (2015) – AMAZON PRIME
This Soviet set thriller was a box office bomb and was mauled by some critics, however, I found it very absorbing thanks to a fine lead performance from Tom Hardy. He plays an orphan who becomes a war-hero and then police officer who, goes against his superior’s orders, and investigates the brutal crimes of a serial-killer. It gets bogged down in a number of subplots but thematically it was strong; as the crimes of the child-killer are compared to that of the Soviet State under Stalin’s brutal regime. (Mark: 6.5 out of 11)
COP CAR (2015) – NOW TV
Kevin Bacon and his fake moustache are sensationally funny in this story of two runaway kids who “accidentally” ruin Bacon’s nefarious doings by stealing his cop car. Overall, it’s lower-budget gem which, despite the stupidity of the moronic children, has a lot of Coen-style humour and bloody violence to make it worth ninety minutes of your time. Bacon of course takes the er… biscuit honours with a rip-roaring, scenery-chewing and smoking performance as the baddie. (Mark: 7.5 out of 11)
GOMORRAH (2009) – BLU RAY
Having watched the terrific Sky Italia show I went back and found the original film based on the book of the same name. It is another brutal indictment against humanity and life on the mean streets of Naples as gangs old and young shoot and cull each other to death. It’s structured around four separate stories involving the Casalesi clan and is a violent drama with a gritty documentary style that keeps you gripped from beginning to end. (Mark: 8 out of 11)
INSIDE OUT (2015) – NOW TV
Brilliant Pixar movie with the wonderful vocal talents of Amy Poehler, Richard Kind, Phyllis Smith and Bill Hader; plus of course the incredibly imaginative minds of Pete Docter and his army of animators. The story shows us two worlds simultaneously: young girl Riley Anderson and the various emotions inside her actual mind. The superb script shows the variety of changes this troubled girl is going through – moving home to a big city for one – as chirpy Poehler as Joy and depressive Smith as Sadness, initially clash, then join forces to stabilize the crumbling psyche of Riley’s mind. It sound really heavy in themes and it is, but it’s done with an incredible light touch and contains some incredible visuals, drama and zinging one-liners. (Mark: 9.5 out of 11)
JESSICA JONES (2015) – NETFLIX
Jessica Jones was a very enjoyable wall-smashing-sex-splashed-bloody-violent-noir-X-rated comic book show. Tough-as-hell Nemi-lookalike Krysten Ritter kicks ass and David Tennant has a ball as the mentalist villain. Arguably the “purple man” storyline didn’t hold for thirteen episodes and perhaps there were too many mad subplots (the bonkers brother and sisters upstairs); but you could see the makers were establishing loads of future characters notably Luke Cage. Entertaining watch and I loved the dark humour and twisted brutality which stands as an alternative to the glossier cinema Marvel adaptations. (Mark: 8.5 out of 11)
MARTYRS (2008) – AMAZON PRIME
DO NOT WATCH THIS FILM IF YOU HAVE A WEAK HEART OR DISPOSITION!
Not since I Saw the Devil (2010) have I seen such a violent and mental film such as this. It concerns Lucie, who having been trapped by unknown captors as a child, grows up with delusional and violent tendencies desiring to wreak revenge on the people who savaged her. Her friend Anna attempts to support the crazy actions of Lucie but gets dragged into a hellish nightmare that I just cannot begin to explain. It’s insane, shocking, violent and has gore galore. Impressive horror! (Mark: 8 out of 11)
MIDNIGHT SPECIAL (2016) – CINEMA
Jeff Nichols prior films have been quietly brilliant notably Shotgun Stories (2007) and the biblical Take Shelter (2011). Thus, I was looking forward to Midnight Special very much. Indeed, I enjoyed this film mostly as it had some intriguing themes of: “special” children, family, religious cults and the notion of what is on “the other side”? Excellent actor Michael Shannon plays father to his young son Alton, who has mysterious gifts which has everyone agog and the Government hunting him; so we get an impressive race against time pursuit and some fine dramatic moments. However, the film fell flat at the end for me and not enough was done at the beginning to set-up the story. Nichols shows though he is a fine filmmaker producing alternative viewing to the often anaemic Hollywood machine. (Mark: 7 out of 11)
NARCOS (2015) – NETFLIX
Narcos is a brutal and rightly unglamorous recount of Columbia’s and the DEA/CIA battle with Pablo Escobar. Hard-to-watch at times because it shows the insanity of society and human beings; but the acting and production values are very high quality. Like Italian TV film and series Gomorrah (2014) it’s not for the faint-hearted as Escobar rises through the ranks drug-trafficking; murdering rivals; kidnapping and slaying politicians, all for the power and wealth. (Mark: 7.5 out of 11)
PEAKY BLINDERS (2013 –) – SEASON 2 – NETFLIX
Season 2 is a terrific post First World War story with a grand lead performance from Cillian Murphy plus awesome supporting cast including Sam Neill, Helen McCrory and Paul Anderson. Murphy portrays the leader of a Birmingham gang and Steven Knight, writer/director of the superb film Locke (2014), carves out a cracking tale involving coppers, whores, gypsies, bookies and ex-soldiers fighting against a backdrop of political revolution and class warfare. In this season Tommy Shelby has new enemies including Jewish ‘baker’ played by Tom Hardy and mad Italian portrayed Noah Taylor. Safe to say plans and plots and crosses and double crosses occur with bloody violence and twists to boot! (Mark: 8 out of 11)
PENNY DREADFUL (2014 – 2015) – SEASONS 1 & 2 – NOW TV
I caught up with the grandiose, gothic and monstrous Grand Guignol TV horror show that was Penny Dreadful and thought both seasons were great entertainment. Loved the Victorian setting and the smoke and mirrors and dead coming back to life! Faux-literary dialogue was floridly written and delivered. Genuinely scary and gory in places too! John Logan’s scripts are a thing of beauty and horror and the cast are just perfection, notably, Eva Green, Timothy Dalton, Josh Hartnett and Rory Kinnear. I grew up watching Frankenstein, Dracula, Hammer House and The Exorcist films when I was a kid and this show just takes all manner of horror tropes and monsters and left me breathless in style and content. (Mark: 10 out of 11)
STEWART LEE’S COMEDY VEHICLE (2016) – BBC IPLAYER
I doubled up watching this and the recent DVD Carpet Remnant World and what can I say. Lee is a human anti-depressant lifting my spirits while at the same time making me think about the very nature of the subjects he tackles. In his fourth comedy vehicle he picks over the bones of: Wealth, Islamophobia, Patriotism, Death, Migrants and Childhood and the routines themselves are funny and challenging. Once again he veers toward Brechtian anti-comedy and potential career suicide with patience testing routines about a cat called Jeremy Corbyn and journalist Rod Liddle. However, I loved such routines and like great art his work gets better on further views. Exceptional comedy! (Mark: 10 out of 11)
STILL ALICE (2014) – NETFLIX
Julianne Moore deservedly won an Oscar for her portrayal of Alice Howland, a college professor, who suffers the tragedy of early onset Alzheimers. Her performance, in a relatively low-budget film, is an incredibly nuanced and emotional rendition, as a once brilliant mind disintegrates in front of our very eyes. A sterling cast including Alec Baldwin as the workaholic husband and Alice’s offspring played by Kate Bosworth and Kristen Stewart are uniformly excellent in support. Overall, it’s a small film with a massive heart and one which reminds us of the fragility of life and the mind. (Mark: 8 out of 11)
THERE WILL BE BLOOD (2007) – NETFLIX
There Will Be Blood is a thing of beauty and ugliness and stands up to viewing after viewing. This is a phenomenal classic American story about greed, madness, religious fervor, parenthood and the pursuit of the black gold which has cursed humanity for donkey’s years. Oil sucks! Daniel Day Lewis is incredible in Paul Thomas Anderson’s masterpiece which moves slowly but moves with grandiose style as it examines one man’s obsession with the capture of land and oil; all the while failing to find favour with humans and humanity around him. (Mark: 9.5 out of 11)
VICTORIA (2015) – SKY MOVIES
This is an unbelievably brilliant German film shot in one-take! Yes! One-take! There are literally NO joins. It runs at over two hours and unfolds in real-time as the thriller takes in Victoria, a Spanish clubber working in Germany, and her involvement with a bunch of charismatic criminals including the handsome talents of Sonne (Frederick Lau). While the story contrivances were slightly difficult to swallow on brief occasions, this ultimately is a superb technical feat and very suspenseful and even touching at times. Plus, it’s not all one-hundred-miles-an-hour-action as Sebastian Schipper, the director, allows the characters to build so you feel emotion for them throughout.(Mark: 8.5 out of 11)
AU REVOIR LES ENFANTS (1987) – CLASSIC MOVIE REVIEW by Paul Laight
Louis Malle’s brilliant wartime drama set in a French Boarding school is a subtle, yet somehow brutal drama which perfectly captures the horrors of war during 1944 Occupied France.
It centres on the relationship between the children who were sent from the cities of France out to the countryside to avoid the Allies bombing. More specifically it looks at the relationship between Julien Quentin and new boy at the school Jean Bonnet.
The adult characters throughout the film such as the parents, priests and teachers all do their utmost to protect the children from the fact that a war rages on. This is demonstrated by the fact the children are sent away from the city where the Allies are bombing non-stop as heard in one of Madame Quentin’s letters. Moreover, Julien’s mother is clearly a loving woman committed to protecting her sons showing this in the opening scene. On the platform Julian is quite vicious to her but she knows this is from fear and being upset at being sent away. The way she hugs him and reassures him tells us she cares very much.
Certainly, the Church and school grounds are both physically and figuratively seen as the main shelter for the children during the film. The location of the school in the countryside away from the main ally bombings also illustrates the desire to protect the children from the war. In addition, so does the blackout curtains and placing the children in the catacombs while an air raid takes place. The fact that Catholicism features heavily in the film offers religion and God as more symbolic protector of the boys.
But as the narrative progresses the world outside and events prick the temporary and flimsy protective bubble. Despite their efforts the adults cannot protect the children fully from the harshness of war with German soldiers, French Military Police and eventually the Gestapo converging on the school.
The colours throughout the film are washed out and somewhat drab with darker hues such as brown, navy blues, black and greys dominating the clothes, curtains and mise-en-scence generally. Married to these colours is a bleached, pared down cinematographical style which combine to create a cold, oppressive feeling during the film. There is a sense the characters are not only trapped by the ongoing war and in the boarding school but also by the weather. Indeed, it appears that a permanent winter hangs over the characters. Moreover, the lighting is served as naturalistic emanating from windows, candles and skylights.
Altogether, this tells the audience that the filmmakers are portraying events as realistic and this is confirmed by the knowledge the narrative comes from a real event in Louis Malles’ childhood. As such the colours, lighting and design combine to create a bleak and stifling environment for the characters; a feeling that war is a difficult climate to exist in with little in the way of bright colours or sunshine to provide escape.
As aforementioned, Jean and Julien’s relationship propels the narrative. Jean Bonnet is portrayed as a studious boy who excels at most subjects notably music and mathematics and is singled out for praise by the teachers. Initially, he attempts to keep himself to himself not forging close ties with any other children other than those he knows. The reaction from the other children is mixed. Some ignore him but others tease him about his name. Julien is indifferent until he is asked by Father Jean to keep an eye on him.
My feeling was there was a real tragedy surrounding Jean and this is testament to the director and the casting of the boy who portrayed him. While many of the children are pale in colour Jean was paler almost ghostlike. The kiss Father Jean places on his head at the beginning of the film seems innocent but becomes portentous by the films’ end. Being Jewish also lends his character a real sense of adversity and there is much suspense to be derived as to when he will be discovered.
Initially, their relationship is strained with Julien not reckoning Jean but over time they slowly begin to bond. Father Jean requests Julien becomes a ‘guardian’ to Jean and Julien takes on this responsibility. He is also naturally curious about the new boy and his background having discovered him praying in Hebrew at night.
Aside from their close proximity in the bedroom area events conspire to bring the children closer together. Julien’s bed-wetting not only causes him distress but also leads to the discovery of Jean’s religious background. Moreover, a mutual interest in playing of the piano provided common ground between the two characters as echoed in a lovely scene later in the film showing them playing together despite the air-raid going on. Indeed both music and film (Chaplin’s ‘The Immigrant’) are shown to be provide a form of escape from the horrors of the outside world.
Julien is a naturally inquisitive boy and when he sees Jean praying at night he becomes intrigued. His interest is piqued further when Father Jean asks him to look after him. This separates Jean Bonnet as different. Moreover, the way they are integrated into the school is different also. Many of the other boys arrive on the train from the city while the Jewish children arrive separately almost in secret from a mystery place.
Julien’s detective work is initially done clandestinely. He searches Jean’s locker at night and finds books with his actual name in them: Kippelstein. This gives him the impetus to begin asking his brother questions about the Jewish people and why they are disliked so. His brother reveals a lack of knowledge and thus Julien also asks his Mother too. As his ‘investigation’ continues and he gains Jean’s trust he then asks him directly about his parents and where he comes from. Over time he gains Jean’s trust and Julien finds out about him personally as well as his background. As such a bond is built via Jean’s secret.
The key event which brings them together is when they get lost in the woods. The scene separates the boys from the rest of the school and shows they support each other in their plight. Julien doesn’t dream of giving Jean up to the German soldiers in the woods and their friendship is confirmed from that moment onwards. However, there’s a sense that it is Julien who gives Jean away to the Gestapo at the end because of their bond but this is a harsh assessment.
Ultimately, it is the crippled Joseph who gives the Jewish children away. While the capture of Jean and the other boys is certainly a tragedy I find Joseph to be the saddest character in the whole film. This is a character who has been dealt a really bad hand in life. He appears to be an orphan, is disabled and is also of lower social standing compared to the richer kids who surround him. Furthermore, he is bullied mercilessly by the other children despite the fact he actually helps them get cigarettes and stamps through his racketeering on the black market.
The biggest tragedy is that he is the one who must pay for the whole ‘black market’ affair with the privileged children being castigated but essentially unpunished for their roles in breaking the rules. Even Father Jean admits as much that Joseph is the scapegoat in the event. My emotions empathised with Joseph at this point and felt maybe he could have been forgiven or at least asked to forgive his sins. But no, he is cast aside and this causes the downfall of Father Jean and the Jewish children.
There is no justification for Joseph’s actions but he’d been forced into a corner like a gutter rat and came out fighting. While his actions are reprehensible he had revenge and spite in his mind as he had lost everything. It was a decision based not only on retribution but also a desire to gain power. At the end as he smokes what he believes to be a victory cigarette the audience knows the Germans will eventually lose the war and poor Joseph has chosen the wrong side.
But does Julien betray Jean in the classic end scene where for one brief second he looks back at his new friend? No. My understanding of the meaning of betrayal is an individual going out of their way vindictively to divulge a secret or secrets for personal gain or self-preservation. And while it’s Julien’s turn and look around which gives Jean away to the Gestapo I don’t believe he has betrayed him. The look around is out of fear for his friend and is an instinct rather than a decisive move. There is no malice aforethought but rather a reaction due to the nervousness of the situation.
There’s also a question of motive. By the end Julien and Jean have become good friends so there is no real reason why he would betray Jean. Moreover, he could have given Jean up many times before that, notably when they get lost in the woods and taken back to school by the soldiers. Overall, I think it’s the Nazis who betray Jean. Their actions have ultimately led to the horror of war and moments such as these in the classroom. Thus, every innocent in this film is betrayed, not just the Jewish children and Father Jean.
Some critics have argued that Au Revoir Les Enfants is as much about childhood and a loss of innocence as it is about the Second World War. It too could be seen as a universal film about life in a boys’ boarding school. I agree with this to some extent it could be seen as a universal film about life in a boys’ boarding school. The film shows the sadness of children being separated from their parents and the closed off nature of the boarding school. It shows the rough and tumble of boys playing in the grounds and how they make fun of each other’s looks and names. Also, there is a real sense of sadness in the isolation of being away from their families and the joy provided when the parents come to visit the children. We indeed see the children cared for by the teachers and Priests so in effect there is a sense of them being orphaned but they are not deprived in any way and their childhood is nowhere near as bad as say an Oliver Twist character.
Thus, in my view, we must view the film as predominantly a film about Second World War. Without it we would have none of the major themes prevalent throughout notably the loss of innocence and childhood. WWII and its’ events give the story a real gravitas and dramatic walls to bounce off. It gives the whole film subtext and tragic events of the narrative making it difficult to view the film solely about life in a boarding school.
The film is microcosmic and analogous using the characters – in a similar way Casablanca (1942) – to represent certain groups present during WWII. One could argue Father Jean represents the Resistance; Julien represents the French nation awakening to the horrors of war; Joseph represents the colluding Vichy government; and more unambiguously Jean is the Jewish people and the Germans the Germans. Therefore, the film offers a positive portrayal of the French when Father Jean and Julien are shown both befriending and protecting Jean.
This film is what I would describe as a quiet tragedy. Big events occur almost incidentally with emotional scenes unfolding and ending before you’ve had a chance to take in the enormity of what has occurred. Louis Malle does this with a very unobtrusive and subtle filmmaking style. The camera positions are relatively neutral throughout shooting in a medium shot on the whole with hardly any close-ups or extreme long shots. The music is also very subtle and another filmmaker may have had a rousing score to deliver emotions but much of the music in the film is diegetic either from piano or violin playing during the Chaplin screening.
The filmmakers’ style allows the audience to make up their own mind about events and bring their own emotions to the scenes. This also occurs with the characters throughout the narrative. These are very human characters and aside from the Germans and the French collaborators who are seen as the enemy there are certainly many grey areas where the children are concerned. Having said that even the Germans are shown to be humans such as when the German soldier asks to provide a confession.
The beauty of this film is the subtle way it conveys its story and meaning. So, when discussing the potential legacy of guilt it is important to look at the characters and their place in the story. There are clearly defined antagonists in the Germans and positive protagonists in the children, Father Jean and his teaching staff. Moreover, in Julien and Joseph we have, in my view, the most complex characters of the film. Joseph is the anti-hero and where much of the legacy of guilt could be fed through. Additionally, there is the suggestion of guilt in Julien’s turn and look that gives Jean away. But guilt here is not necessarily overt and is conveyed between the lines in keeping with the masterful direction Malle provides throughout.
Similarly, the film does not show the French as anti-semitic throughout; quite the opposite in fact. While the children show ignorance of Judaism this is not through prejudice but rather a lack of knowledge and when given the chance to betray the Jewish children the French display grit and resistance against the Germans; something to feel proud rather than guilt about.
So, in conclusion, underneath the surface there is a sense of guilt that pervades the characters and film in general but it is subtle and underplayed and the film is all the more brilliant for it. It does not smash home any singular messages regarding a legacy of guilt but shows all facets of the French people at wartime. Both the positive and negative and the result is not a simple case of black and white but instead a powerful grey like the colour of the Nazi uniform itself.