Saturday, August 18, 2007

Père Jacques Bunel: "Au revoir, les enfants"

Un petit de cinéma français... and Justification by Love

Raphael Fejtö and Gaspard Manesse
in Au Revoir, Les Enfants

I love French movies. I guess a red-blooded American male in this era of francophobic "Freedom Fries" is not supposed to, but I do. I always have. For one thing, their films usually have an actual story, a script, and a pace that somewhat resembles the real pace of the lives of real people, even here in the US, where we scoff at the 35-hour French working week... Although they may be existential or avant-garde, they aren't full of special effects, things blowing up, and hackneyed cliches. They're usually directed with seriousness and care. In addition, I defy anyone to tell me that French isn't the world's most beautiful language. To me, it's beyond peer in that regard, especially when spoken by lovely actresses. There's something about French culture that's very attractive to me, despite the French reputation for surliness, insouciance, and snobbish anti-Americanism. I've never been there, but I know enough people who have been there who can refute the worst of the aforesaid stereotypes.

I'm not a prude. With respect to French films, my wife Anne might wryly add that I'm not likely to be offended by gratuitous skin either. OK. I might be tempted to just laugh, nod, and shrug that off, but you know what? There is something that is simultaneously healthier yet less prurient in the way that the French handle the topic of sex in their films, especially in comparison with the schizoprhenic way it's handled in the Anglo world. The tongues spoken by Mediterranean peoples aren't called "romance languages" for nothing. I don't know if "sophisticated" is the right word to use when describing the French treatment of it, but I do know that "puerile" and "sophomoric" are entirely proper words to describe how sex is handled in English-speaking media, particularly in British film and television.

I don't see as many French movies as I used to, but I did see an older one recently that I hadn't seen before, and it's become one of my all-time favorites. It doesn't have a centimeter of gratuitous skin in it.

In 1987, French director Louis Malle (who started out as an underwater cameraman for Jacques Cousteau and was a well-known director of other films such as My Dinner with Andre, Damage, Pretty Baby, Atlantic City and Vanya on 42nd Street), released a beautiful film called Au Revoir, Les Enfants. It was an intensely personal, mostly autobiographical story about an incident that had haunted him since he was a boy. A highly acclaimed film, it won 7 Cesar awards at the Cannes Film Festival, 1 Golden Lion at Venice, and 2 Academy Award nominations in 1987. Malle passed away in 1995.

The story takes place at a Carmelite school for boys in Vichy-occupied France during World War II. The main character, Julien (Gaspard Manesse) is supposed to represent Louis Malle himself. He's one of the brightest if not the brightest pupil in the school, but he doesn't have many close friends and is a bit bored. One day, Carmelite Father Jean (Philippe Morier-Genoud) announces the arrival of three new students. One of them, "Bonnet" (Raphael Fejtö), is quiet, shy and aloof, but quickly becomes a serious academic rival to Julien, even to the point of becoming the pampered favorite of the piano teacher that Julien has had a crush on. Julien becomes jealous and resentful of Bonnet at the same time that he is intrigued by him.

One day, on an outing in the woods, the boys of the school are involved in a "capture the flag" type of treasure hunt. Julien and Bonnet work together to win it, but become separated from the rest of the students and become lost in the woods. They are discovered by a patrol of German soldiers and are driven back to the school by the soldiers who cheerfully tell the boys that they are Bavarian Catholics. Julien notices, however, that Bonnet is absolutely siezed with terror over the incident. The whole happening brings the two of them closer, and after a while they become very close friends. By a series of simple accidents in the dormitory, Julien discovers Bonnet's secret in some written materials. Bonnet's real name is Kippelstein. Julien has discovered that his friend is Jewish, but he keeps it quiet. Not knowing much about Judaism, or the danger that his friend is in, Julien starts to ask probing questions and Bonnet's walls start to go back up, but Bonnet soon learns he can trust Julien.

The secret, however, does eventually become know to someone else at the school with darker motives, and the film ends with the Gestapo carrying out a raid on the school. Bonnet/Kippelstein is discovered, along with some other Jewish boys that Father Jean had been trying to protect by passing them off as Christians. As the boys are carted away along with Father Jean by the Nazis in front of the assembled student body, they say goodbye to Father Jean. He turns to them and says "Au Revoir, les enfants (Goodbye, children). See you soon." Julien waves to Bonnet and Bonnet looks back. We learn in the closing remarks that Bonnet later perished at Auschwitz and Father Jean at Mauthausen.

Youtube wasn't a lot of help for me this time, but there is a subpar clip here of the last several minutes of the fim. Unforunately it is in Italian, and is not dubbed, but you can follow the gist of what is going on if you are interested.

One character who intrigued me in the film, but was not treated as a major character, was that of Father Jean. In one scene he delivers a very powerful homily on sacrifice that offends many of the well-heeled Vichy collaborators in his congregation, who are prompted to walk out, yet when Bonnet places himself at the altar rail to receive the Eucharist, Father Jean freezes up in surprise and cannot bring himself to give it to him.

It was only in the last couple of days that I learned that this character, like Julien standing in for Louis Malle, was a well-known person himself, and is apparently a candidate for sainthood. I found out on a Carmelite website that Father Jean was in fact Père Jacques Bunel.

In another Carmelite link it describes him briefly:

Pere Jacques of Jesus, born Lucien-Louis Bunel (1900-1945), was immortalised in the French film, Au revoir les enfants. He is remembered for his extraordinary ability to bridge the differences of class, ideology, nationality and religion, that often divide the human family. The son of working-class parents, with a lifelong commitment to social justice, after ordination he joined the Carmelite friars, and became director of an elite school near Paris, the Petit-College, at the age of 34. When Germany invaded France in 1940 and permitted the Vichy French Government to establish an oppressive collaborationist regime, Pere Jacques quietly joined the Resistance. Without hesitation and with full knowledge of the possible implications for his own safety, he accepted a request from Mother Maria, the superior of a convent of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Sion, to provide refuge within his school for three young Jewish boys. For this act of compassion, he was betrayed to the Gestapo: he would pay with his life.

In the concentration camp of Mauthausen, he spent himself tirelessly in the service of others. He was admired and trusted by all his fellow-prisoners including non-believers and communists. He died two weeks after the liberation of the camp by the Allies. The State of Israel has honoured him as a rescuer, one of the "Righteous Among the Nations." A martyr, his cause for canonisation was opened in 1990. In 1997, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum mounted an exhibition recalling the rescue efforts of Pere Jacques, wishing to honour the memory of someone who reached out to victims of the Nazi regime at great personal risk.

The first Carmelite link mentioning Bunel above has a Podcast page and number of MP3s available for listening and for downloads. There are three brief reflections from Père Jacques Bunel:


Père Jacques Bunel Conference 1

Père Jacques Bunel Conference 2

Père Jacques Bunel Conference 3

I liked these remarks of his in particular:

I would like to place Christ before you as the object of your prayer, which is the essence of Carmel. We are vowed to prayer, it is the hallmark of our Order. We have come for one single reason; to pray, to be souls of prayer, that is to say, souls of love, who spend their lives loving God. And the rest, ALL the rest, whatever it may be, has no importance, absolutely no importance.

A passage I love very much from the Office of Lent is the responsorial that says: "Human beings see only the outside, the appearance, but God penetrates the heart". In the evening of this life, we will be judged by love. What a remarkable reversal of values will await us in heaven! God will look only at the heart, not at any deeds, intelligence, or anything earthly. We will be judged by LOVE!

Our life must be a constant, silent prayer that rises unceasingly to God. That is what constitutes our duty in life...

We must not confuse this state of prayer with religious sentimentality, or with pious feelings unrelated to authentic prayer, which can sometimes be piercingly painful. That love, which is our life's duty, must express itself in vibrant, zealous deeds, all aspects of which compel our careful consideration.

Only with deepest humility can we recognize how far we are from our goal. Only those souls who have attained a lofty level of holiness can truly acknowledge how far they still are from their total fulfillment. For example, the Cure of Ars considered himself more wretched than the notorious sinners to whom he ministered. He realized that many of these fallen souls, had they received the same graces that he had received, would perhaps surpass him in holiness. Only with humility can we recognize the torpor of our love.


Garpu the Fork said...

Oh wow. I've seen the movie before, but hadn't realized it was based upon real events.

Jeff said...

Hi Garpu,

Yes, when I first saw it, I thought it must have been based at least loosely on real events, but I didn't realize how close to a true story it really was.

cowboyangel said...


This was a great film. I should watch it again, as I haven't seen it since it first came out. La Reina also liked it very much.

I knew the story came from Malle's own experiences, but I didn't realize that the priest was a real person. He sounds very cool. Thanks for that info.

crystal said...

Very inspirational - thanks, Jeff.

When my sister and I took a tour bus to Delphi on our one trip to Europe, we got on the wrong bus and ended up with an all French group. It was weird to hear children speaking French ... it was so sensual that it seemed like you should be 18 or over to be allowed to speak it :-)

Liam said...

Great post about a great movie, Jeff. I'll add my name to the list of people who didn't know that about the priest.

I'm a great fan of Louis Malle, who died before his time. I loved "My Dinner with Andre" and "Vanya on 42nd Street." "Milou in May" is a film I could watch over and over again.

Jeff said...


I know what you mean. Just watching that first trailer and hearing the word "mère" for "mother"... It has such beauty and weight to it. If I had enough time on my hands to learn how to do just one impractical thing for the sheer heck of it, it would be to learn to speak French.

William and Liam,

Yeah, interesting story about Father Bunel, isn't it? I like the few other films of Malle's that I've seen. My Dinner with Andre was great. I haven't seen that one in a long time, might be nice to see it again.

tinydesigner21 said...

I just watched this film this morning on tv. It made me come to tears at the end.
This is def. one of my favorite films now that i have seen it and it has inspired me to want to watch more french films. I only started watching this film because I am in the middle of learning french right now so it was even more interesting to me. Props to the director, a wonderful job on the film. I did not realize until I read this on your page that the move was made the year i was born. That neat to me for some reason. Anyway thank you for the information I was looking for.
Have a lovely day.

-Sarah Williams