The pale child gives a faint wave of his hand. He is saying goodbye to his Jewish friend, about to be taken from school to die in Auschwitz, but there is also a whole history of helplessness in the gesture: not only the boy's but that of his class and time and culture and place. The gesture occurs at the end of Louis Malle's Au revoir les enfants, 1987 - the year of the story is 1944 - but it has echoes and relatives everywhere in French films since the war, and in French fiction of the same period. At the close of Malle's (and Queneau's) Zazie dans le métro (novel 1959, film 1960), the little girl who has breezed through all kinds of turbulence and yet missed her heart's desire, a trip on the Metro, is asked by her mother what she has done during her brief stay in Paris. J' ai vieilli, she says. Not: I have lived or learned or suffered or even necessarily, as Barbara Wright's otherwise excellent translation has it, 'I've aged'. Zazie may have aged but the idea is more sententious than anything else she says, and she is more likely to mean she has just grown older. Time has passed, as time does. There is nothing you can do about it, and nothing has been done. Of course the perky gaze of the actress Catherine Demongeot makes the remark seem cheerful enough in context, but the head-on framing of the face of a child, and Malle's awkward cut to this face between the mother's question and Zazie's answer, give the moment a strongly emblematic feel, and bring us close to the shot in Au revoir les enfants. The line also appears in Malle's Milou en Mai, 1989 - 'a sort of quotation from myself', as he says to Philip French in Malle on Malle.
LRB 17 December 1992 | PDF Download