Picking up where “The 400 Blows” left off, Christian Faure’s “Behind the Walls” opens with a young French runaway captured on the beach and sent to a strict war orphanage. Though not the story of Antoine Doinel per se, this kindred tale springs from “Rififi” author Auguste Le Breton’s autobiographical novel and relates the brutal real-life experiences of a 14-year-old boy determined to escape his prison-like confines. Powerful performances and an unflinching portrayal of everyday horrors should make polished pic a critical and popular success in native France, where recent tragedies among orphans lend added resonance, later to be adopted by sympathetic international auds.
The bigscreen debut of longtime television director Faure, project is imagined by its helmer as the “hardcore version” of 2005 Oscar nominee “Les Choristes.” Indeed, Faure makes no attempt to soften the innate violence his characters exact upon one another. The abuse may start with the ready fists of Les Arches’ adult staff, who beat the children for the slightest infraction, but it extends deep into the ranks.
Among the kids, a violent hierarchy exists, where the older boys carry knives and, in some cases, rape the newcomers under the wardens’ less-than-watchful eyes. Yves Treguier (newcomer Emile Berling) arrives in the grim institution the day after his 14th birthday, lucking into the protective custody of older boy Blondeau (Guillaume Gouix).
From the moment he arrives, Treguier sets his mind on escape, quickly earning the nickname “Monte Cristo” among his new friends, who are inspired by his audacity. A first attempt incurs a beating; a second gets him thrown into solitary confinement; one more try would mean transfer to a penal colony. But with the prospect of a seven-year “sentence” ahead of him, Treguier sees no alternative to forging his own destiny outside Les Arches’ high walls, whatever the cost.
Inside, Treguier’s closest companion arrived through very different circumstances. The boy, known as “Wire,” grew up rich but was turned over to the orphanage when his mother remarried. Reduced from custom-tailored suits to coarse rags and wooden clogs, Wire is a symbol for opportunities lost: He hasn’t forgotten the piano lessons of his early childhood and entertains the others by whistling a melancholy tune that serves as the movie’s theme. Wire’s words, composed in a manifesto of grievances, become the pic’s message — “Children are not born evil,” he pleads, “Why does society brutalize the children of those it sent to die in war?” — while his fate doubles as its deepest tragedy.
Set in 1932, Le Breton’s autobiographical novel describes a system not abolished in France until 1979. During their heyday, these “educational homes” evidently functioned more like concentration camps than schools: When Les Arches’ storeroom is raided, all the boys are forced out of bed to march in the freezing rain, and the only education depicted is the heavy labor that consumed their days.
Amid such Dickensian injustice, which echoes the soul-crushing conditions seen in films like “Zero for Conduct” and “The Magdalene Sisters,” Faure also provides moments of fleeting happiness (as when the boys hide out during laundry duty for a glimpse of the headmistress’ stockings). Just beyond the gates, a bridge looms, a symbol of a more promising existence, while inside, Treguier’s atlas suggests the lure of faraway destinations.
Shooting in a desaturated, nearly monochromatic palette, d.p. Jean-Claude Larrieu dynamically navigates the old Rochefort hospital that doubles as the high-walled institution. Faure’s approach is engineered to exact a specific emotional reaction, with characters conveniently flattened and compositions meticulously storyboarded for maximum impact.
One villain, a bully named Molina (Anthony Decadi), serves merely to antagonize Treguier, but others, such as the African drunkard (Pascal Nzonzi) who supervises the boys, alternate between severity and understanding. The ensemble proves universally strong, assembled by the same casting director who discovered the young talents of “Les Choristes.”