Its title is strange, its been out of circulation since it was released in 1967, it’s in French and has no subtitles, yet no film is so enchanting but ultimately tragic as Le Grand Meaulnes, based on the classic novel of the same title written by Alain-Fournier, his only novel published the year after he was killed in the first World War. I’ll need to start with the novel since it is so fundamental to the film. Whoever read it in their youth can never forget it. It influenced Jack Kerouac, and thus became the only book that Sal Paradise carried with him in On the Road. Author John Fowles considered it, “the greatest novel of adolescence in European literature.” In the U.S, it is usually translated as The Wanderer, a fitting title. The film’s setting is rural France at the beginning of the 1900s. In a small school house the adolescent boys are struck by a newcomer, a taller and braver version of themselves. He is 17 year old Le Grand Meaulnes, Meaulnes is his last name, meaning Miller, or simply, the big Miller. He impresses all of the boys, especially 15 year old Francois Seurel, the book’s narrator and a central character of the film. Soon after arriving, Augustin takes a horse and wagon to go to wandering. The horse returns but not Meaulnes. He is gone three days, and on his return he says little, only that he didn’t sleep. It is only after several days that he retells the story to Francois. His adventure was the most marvelous and mysterious adventure. He had taken a horse cart and left town, but he became lost and then his horse got away. When looking for the horse he had to walk a long time and finally heard children’s voices. He followed them and found a chateau, where children were dressed in period clothes and were playing games. Augustin entered the Chateau and hid in an unused room and lay on a bed. Two actors were talking in another room , one a Pierrot, and invited him to the masquerade ball. Augustin found clothes and dressed as a marquis. There were few adults around other than the entertainers, and a few others, and the children and teenagers seemed to rule in this world. The children escorted him through the rooms into the Great Room where a banquet was being held for the engagement of the son of the house, Frantz de Galais, to the beautiful Valentine. All of the scenes at the chateau and its surroundings are photographed in blurred colored shots, evoking a surreal and mysterious world unlike the everyday world. Augustin joins in the merriment and eventually enters a room where beautiful music is being played on the piano by a dazzling young beauty. Children surround her and Augustin joins them, feeling like he belonged there. This was like a dream, a moment of perfect contentment, that she was his wife and these were his children. He is kissed by a little girl. Hours pass by in the Chateux and the next morning the festivities continue outside, where Augustin finds the young lady again and rows on the lake with her to an island. She is Yvonne de Galais, the daughter of the house. When they row back she tells him that he shouldn’t follow her – that they were only playing at children’s games. When Frantz de Galais returns to the Chateau he announces that his fiancee has broken their engagement. He leaves word that he longer wishes to live. Soon, everybody leaves. Augustin leaves too, and from the carriage he sees Ganache, who played the Pierrot character, carrying the body of Frantz, who has a wound to his head.
Meaulnes thinks of nothing but of finding the chateau again. He tries to draw a map, and enlists Francois’ help in finding it. One day a mysterious gypsy comes to the town, with a bandage around his head. He enters the school and competes with Meaulnes for the attention of the other boys. But they become friends, and with Francois, they enter a pact of loyalty, swearing to come to each other’s aid whenever they hear a certain call of distress. With this he gives Augustin the address in Paris where Yvonne now lives. The gypsy is Frantz de Galais. As time passes, Augustin has gone to Paris and come back. Francois is now the schoolteacher. He is trying to have Yvonne and Augustin see each other at a local event after he finally meets her in a local shop and finds that she is unmarried. Augustin and Yvonne finally meet again, but the magic has neen dispelled. He learns that her family became indebted because of Frantz, the chateau is no longer there and the boats and horses were sold off. Augustin’s feelings turned to gloom, and this turned to anger at the family for using its one old horse to pull a cart. Later that evening, in shame, he asked Yvonne’s hand in marriage.
They wed at the local church seen below, only Frantz lurks at left, still in misery over his lost fiancee and needing the help of Augustin. Francois and another friend try to get Frantz to leave and let the couple find their happiness, but as the couple settle in he wails the call that Augustin had pledged to follow to his aid. Augustin has been restless. He knows that the bliss that he found with Yvonne at the Chateau has been dispelled, and worse, that he no longer has the purity to deserve her. He must at least make right what happened to Frantz. As it happened, he had his own past with Valentine, Frantz’s former fiancee. And so he leaves Yvonne to join Frantz.
I should not give away any more of the plot, either of the film or of the book, as this really would become a “spoiler.” The character of Augustin is very much in the classical Romantic tradition, and yet his quest for perfection, orof this Garden of Eden is almost Medieval. The novel was magic realism before that term was used. As filmed, it is unique. It is one of those stories that is daunting to put to film, and yet the film creates it’s own magic. One can read the reviews on imdb.com to get an idea of the impression this movie left on those who have seen it. Jean Blaise played Augustin Meaulnes and Alain Libolt played Francois Seurel.
Although Le Grand Meaulnes came out in 1967, what relationship did it have with the other films of that year or with that era? The movie was directed by Jean-Gabriel Albicocco, a cinematographer like his father. He made few films and only had financial success with this one. Although it was a period film, its romanticism was in the air. Far From the Madding Crowd was another period film from that year. The idealism of Le Grand Meaulnes was very much in keeping with 1967, although the book had been written in 1913. By the following year in 1968, the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. put an end to that, just like the WW I’s Flanders Fields of 1914 ended the life of Alain-Fournier.