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July 14, 2011 by Matthew Mesaros

While a great many debuts carry with them a youthful exuberance, Maurice Pialat’s first feature, L’enfance-nue (Naked Childhood), made when he was approaching his mid-forties, seems instead steeped in world-weary experience. It’s an unusual attribute, especially considering the film follows a ten year old boy. Comparisons with Truffaut’s Les quatre cents coup (The 400 Blows) are almost inevitable, both in terms of content and also because that darling of the Nouvelle Vague helped produce Pialat’s film. There’s a world of difference between Truffaut’s poetic debut and the direct, documentary-like veneer Pialat favours. Describing L’enfance-nue as “Les quatre cents coup stripped of all sentimentality” is accurate but it doesn’t quite capture the wonderful nuances both films boast. Although it’s a tendency in film criticism to pitch titles against each other and then claim a victor, the truth is that these films work as a remarkable one-two punch in raising the issue of troubled childhoods.

The film centres on young François (Michel Terrazon), ten years old and one of the hundred-thousand or so children that spent 1968 within the French child welfare system. His mother abandoned him soon after he was born and he now spends his time being shipped between foster families and state facilities. When we’re first introduced he’s living with a young couple and their daughter but it’s clear this house is no home. Having deliberately tested the patience of his minders one time too often, or perhaps just the right number of times if you happen to be François, they make a request to have him removed and a social worker resignedly agrees. He is subsequently sent to stay with the Thierrys, an older couple in their sixties, whose home has seen many young boys and girls pass through. They know the routine but they recognise in François a terribly disturbed young boy.

Pialat may have broke into feature filmmaking late in his life but he was no amateur when production started in 1967. He made a number of short films throughout the 1950s, culminating in 1960’s L’amour existe (Love Exists).1 This award-winning2 twenty-minute documentary lamented the soulless rebuilding and gentrification of post-war Paris as its society ventured into the modern age of office blocks and bureaucracy. Despite garnering acclaim, a few more years and a few more short documentaries, including travelogues through Turkey and Southern France, had to transpire before Pialat finally took the reins of a feature. The result is undeniably assured. The director observed that ten depressing years working as a travelling salesman informed L’amour existe. That very occupation was infused with drama and pathos in Albert and David Maysles’ documentary, Salesman, a key work of “Direct Cinema.” The very same year, Pialat would offer a similar directness, albeit with a few more obvious conceits, in his portrayal of young François.

The most obvious conceit is that Pialat uses actors and creates a story derived from a script3. Recognising that too rigid a plan might defeat him, he formulated proceedings to infuse the film with a measure of immediacy and uncertainty. For example, although a series of events were devised to tell the story of young François, the dialogue throughout was mostly improvised. Additionally, if Pialat was not directly capturing reality as the Maysles did in Salesmen (if ‘capturing reality’ is really possible, or at least an appropriate phrase to describe the process) he did staff his film with many people he met during his research. Perhaps surprisingly, he was turned onto the story by an acquaintance, it was not a subject he decided upon himself. Playing the elderly adoptive couple, Marie-Louise and René Thierry effectively play themselves. The couple gave foster care to many young children, including the boy whose story supplied the primary inspiration for L’enfance-nue. As René recounts, to an enraptured François, a brush with death during his time with the French Resistance, he is telling his own story and the collection of photos he uses as a visual aid is from his own records.

This documentary-style approach does not weigh heavily on the proceedings. There’s no sense as events unfold that we are witnessing a conscious attempt to recreate a reality that has already come to pass once before. Though based on extensive research and utilising the presence of people with first-hand experience, Pialat’s film breathes with a vigour and conciseness that speaks to the very highest standards of fictional filmmaking. The editing pulls us through the emotional peaks and valleys of young François’ childhood with every shot vital to that end. Likewise, cinematographer Claude Beausoleil, a veteran of the Nouvelle Vague, although mostly in the capacity of camera operator rather than cinematographer, captures the grubby, rural locales of Northern France while still finding space for easy injections of vivid (Eastmancolor) colour.

Intelligently, the film strips away some of the more dour details that were uncovered while researching the film. One girl overdosed on pills while a boy hanged himself in his foster parents’ bathroom using a dog lead. L’enfance-nue does not need these horrific events to capture the floating despair of a youth without emotional foundation. Inserting such setpieces would most likely have unbalanced an otherwise delicately poised representation of the various victories and defeats housed within this boy’s youth. Pialat himself claims that the film is not intended to specifically deal with a youth lived in government care but rather with childhood generally.

In the central role, Terrazon is a hired actor and his youthful countenance provides a powerful sounding board for the drama that surrounds him. He starred in only a few more titles before leaving the medium and it seems only fitting, given the raw nature of Pialat’s film, that it didn’t create an icon like Les quatre cents coup made of a young Jean-Pierre Léaud. Although central to the piece, much of the drama of L’enfance-nue seems almost to develop separate from its troubled protagonist. He really can’t give voice to his own dilemma and that’s of core importance. Unlike Antoine Doinel, the protagonist of the series of films Les quatre cents coup would begin, François deflects any grand poetic overtures. Harking back to the original summation of the films’ differences, a stripping away of sentimentality, François really is a handful and, for his beleaguered minders, an easy child to give up on. When he drops the family cat down a stairwell, fatally injuring it, it’s no childhood mishap. The cat was a truer member of that clan than François anyway, and the boy knew it.

Throughout the film François says very little. He mostly just speaks when he is spoken to. Only with his foster grandmother, the elderly Nana (Marie Marc), can he lower his guard. Given her advanced years and background status within the household, she poses no threat to his facade. His behavior is, to a degree, easily explained but if such explication was L’enfance-nue’s sole intent it could provide little illumination. Recognising his abandonment, the young François sees no reason to cooperate with those around him. If his own mother would not take him then why should he trust what amount to complete strangers? Every home is temporary and every parental figure is tarnished by the memory of what went before. He pushes everything away because he feels he must be alone in the world. Who could love him enough to tolerate his behaviour? He associates with older boys. He smokes. He steals impulsively. He even throws a knife at another boy with seemingly murderous intent. Finally he tosses old railway rivets at passing cars, the hefty chunks of metal transforming a childhood prank into a lethal gambit.

François is his own worst enemy and he undoes whatever measures might help him. Each kindness paid to him he ignores or perverts and it is only the resulting disciplinary actions that he registers – partially as the unfair machinations of his abandoned state but also as something he surely must deserve for being such an unlovable child. Pialat is careful to balance events, allowing us to observe this young boy’s mischief but also his unhindered childish curiousity. It’s the latter that his latest foster parents try and take advantage of, seemingly with some success. Having been confined to his room for yet another outburst, François kicks out the lower panel of the door and begins to climb through. In a single cut following his foiled escape, we rejoin the young boy sitting with René, the door freshly repaired. François seems to admire his elder’s artisan skill and perhaps this points towards a possible outlet.

Unfortunately, while the Thierrys recognise the importance of showing François constructive endeavours into which he can invest his energy, the boy is too hurt, at least for now, to allow that bond to form. For a boy of such tender years, who could ever understand his pain? A subsequent passage, addressed directly to the camera and possessing a remarkable sadness, allows the Thierrys to discuss François’ behavior. It reveals the couple’s keen insight and compassion concerning the boy. Unfortunately, having exhausted every possible avenue they can now only lament the impossibility of reaching him. So the dramatic crux of the film is exposed, a point that anyone involved with foster care or adoption will likely recognise. Successfully forming a bond with many of these children can’t help but rely on luck. Hard work can build strong foundations, and a deep reserve of patience and love is necessary to allow the process to proceed, but sometimes even those noble attributes will only leave the damage all the more profoundly raw and exposed.

All this is not to suggest that Pialat’s film is bereft of hope. More accurately it is steeped in uncertainty. Such an impasse only seems fitting given the subject matter. Nonetheless, Pialat recognises a beauty in such difficulty. His previous short documentary, L’amour existe, found great beauty in failings, a recognition of the complexity of the human spirit. Likewise, L’enfance-nue understands that it is the malleable and multi-faceted nature of that spirit that deepens the tragedy but also opens the possibility of recovery. Even as it acknowledges this, its poetry remains suitably earthy, avoiding the open lyricism of Les quatre cents coup’s final freeze-frame. For now François will escape nowhere, not even for a moment. His troubles lie within himself and not in any oppressive outsider.

In Choses vues autour de L’enfance-nue (Observations: Around L’enfance-nue)4, a teenager, a former ward of the state, powerfully embodies the film’s central dilemma. The girl, unnamed for legal reasons, was asked if she would ever consider providing foster care when she’s older. “No. Never. I couldn’t do it,” she begins, “It’s too hard to understand children like us.” L’enfance-nue understands the turmoil of François but also understands that easy answers simply don’t exist.

1 L’amour existe is provided as a supplement with both the UK and US DVD releases of L’enfance-nue. Not since Criterion’s inclusion of Georges Franju’s Le sang des bêtes with their release of Les yeux sans visage (Eyes Without a Face) can I recall a short film so readily holding its own against the feature.

2 It won both The Lumière and San Marco awards at The Venice Film Festival in 1961.

3 He co-authored the film with Arlette Langman, sister to another of L’enfance-nue’s producers, Claude Berri. This film marked their first time working together. She would become a key figure in Pialat’s life, as a co-writer, an editor, and a lover.

4 This documentary serves both as a ‘behind-the-scenes’ featurette and as an examination of the real situations the film touches upon. It is also included as a supplement with both the UK and US DVD releases of L’enfance-nue.

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