Fontainbleau, 1944 and unpopular Catholic schoolboy Julien Quentin cautiously befriends the equally bookish Jean Bonnet. However, he slowly comes to suspect that the newcomer is not who he seems and his final realisation has tragic consequences.
Louis Malle's first French-language film in a decade was proclaimed by many as his best. Based on an incident in his own childhood, it explored a boy's gradual appreciation of the harsh injustices of life as his classroom innocence is destroyed by the horrific realities of the Nazi Occupation. The film completed a loose trilogy that began with Le Souffle Au Coeur and Lacombe Lucien, in which youths were forced to make moral choices in moments of crisis. Each was refreshingly free of the cloying nostalgia that blights so many American memoirs of supposedly less tainted times. Yet, while the first two caused considerable controversy in France, this admirably restrained drama - which won the Golden Lion at Venice and received an Oscar nomination - escaped much of the censure that continues to greet studies of the Vichy era.
Perhaps, this is because Malle is careful to sustain a balance between his characters, so that schoolboys and collaborators alike are seen taunting Jews, while a soldier and a priest are shown defending them. Indeed, similar tensions consistently underpin the episodic storyline, which is punctuated with acts of searching and concealment, with the Gestapo's pursuit of Jews, freedom fighters and criminals contrasting with the boys' bid to find themselves in their rivalries, games and perusal of erotica.
Renato Berta's muted cinematography helps establish the sense of creeping oppression and deepening foreboding that pervades Julien's stumbling passage towards understanding. But it's Malle's handling of Gaspard Manesse and Raphael Fejto (who rather drift into friendship out of necessity) that keeps their fate from becoming melodramatic, as - like Brigitte Fossey and Georges Poujouly in René Clément's remarkable study of the impact of war on young minds, Jeux Interdit - they're never allowed fully to appreciate the seriousness of their situation until it's too late.
Louis Malle, possibly at his best here. The drama is subtle but affecting.