If the popular image of a boarding-school movie is all jolly hockey sticks, midnight feasts and well-bred brats on broomsticks, this reissue of Louis Malle’s stark 1987 memoir set in a Catholic school during the Nazi occupation of France provides a timely corrective.
The writer-director reimagines his young self as Julien Quentin, a scrappy but soulful 12-year-old who becomes fascinated by the boy in the next bed: Jean Bonnet, a sullen, dark-haired youth who doesn’t know the hymns, doesn’t take communion and doesn’t appear to have any parents. Will Julien keep his new classmate’s secret, even as the Nazis step up their search for France’s remaining renegade Jews?
It’s this ever-shifting balance of power that is the film’s greatest strength: Julien is just old enough to understand Jean’s plight, but still young enough to act unpredictably if things don’t go his way. Crisply photographed and directed with understated grace, the film can feel a little standoffish given the emotive subject matter. But with strong performances from the young leads and a vice-like air of mounting tension, it’s well worth revisiting.