Then Playing — Au Revoir, Les Enfants; Shithouse; Araya

Au Revoir, Les Enfants (Louis Malle, 1987). After more than a decade making English-language films, director Louis Malle returned to his homeland for this affecting drama set in a French boarding school during World War II. The autobiographical film, which Malle also wrote and produced, is low on sensationalism and high on emotional verisimilitude, even as its devastating last act hinges on an act of inadvertent betrayal. Malle’s restraint heightens the film’s honesty and lived-in quality. In addition to the overwhelming menace of occupying German forces, Malle grinds into the details of the all-boys school, where a different sort of punishing misery rules. The hierarchical jockeying, and associated bullying, that takes place is clearly depicted. It’s no wonder that genuine friendship starts to feel like the only respite from the social cruelties, and contributing to a tragedy befalling that friend is sure to haunt a creative, empathetic soul for the rest of his days. Au Revoir, Les Enfants is therapeutic in its heart-rending truth.

Shithouse (Cooper Raiff, 2020). A bedraggled comedy about college life, Shithouse might be the most accurate depiction of first-year uncertainty — that all too commonly evolves into misery — that screen has ever seen. Cooper Raiff wrote and directed the film. He also stars as Alex, a young man struggling through his first year at a Los Angeles college, desperately homesick for his Texas home and family. After an unpleasant experience at a party staged at the colorfully dubbed college house of the title, Alex bonds with his RA, Maggie (Dylan Gelula, strong enough to retrieve the role from the pitfall of damaged-girl tropes) during a long night of wandering and different awkward stabs at canoodling. The film has the ramshackle charm of early Richard Linklater features and other nineteen-nineties independent offerings where lowkey was the prevailing tone. Raiff shows an admirable willingness to push into uncomfortable emotions without resorting to the manipulations that typify too many works that fall under the broad rubric of cringe comedy. It’s a winning debut film.

Araya (Margot Benacerraf, 1959). Margot Benacerraf’s documentary about the salt mines on the Araya Peninsula in Venezuela is a a refined, understated marvel. She covers a full day in the lives of the citizens around the mountains of sodium dredged out of the sea. The film is patient and meticulous, showing the backbreaking, sun-scorched labor in striking black-and-white cinematography by Giuseppe Nisoli. The film is evocative of a specific place and time, and the closing moments suggest that the time is about to pass, the toil of human beings replaced by the brutal efficiency of heavy machinery. It’s to Benacerraf’s credits that she passes no judgement on the looming change, opting instead for ambiguity about whether its a gift or a hardship for the people of Araya to have this unkind livelihood taken away.

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