L’Enfance-Nue is a look into the world of children’s services in 1960’s Northern France. In highlighting the truth behind a failed child care system Pialat channels his tale through the character of Francois (Michel Terrazon), who is perhaps the most unruly ten-year old child ever seen in cinema. In a scene that marks his introduction on screen he drops a cat down a flight of stairs, laying out the two raison d’etre behind his actions; attention seeking and peer pressure. L’Enfance-Nue follows Francois journey between two families, the first of which seemingly fail him, and the second of which treat him well, only for the same occurrence of that of the first family to arise, suggesting that the presumptions of the audience with regards to the first family were completely wrong.
The question as to whether or not Francois problem is a product of his upbringing is perhaps the one that is most prevalent throughout the picture. We are shown both sides of the situation and left to our own conclusions. I recall that the first time I saw L’Enfance-Nue I couldn’t help but presume that the first family had simply failed Francois (a point given weight by the difference in the sleeping arrangements of Francois and his foster sister Josette), and remember being genuinely surprised by the film’s final outcome. I have no doubts that Hollywood would deal with such material in a very different manner, but lets not drift, put simply Francois is a dangerous and horrible person. The throwing of the cat down the flight of stairs is genuinely disturbing, and a major departure from Francois earlier largely boyish misdemeanors. It’s an awful moment, with the scene in which the cat crawls away genuinely heartbreaking. Many people find it difficult to empaphise with Francois beyond this early point, but I believe that it is a credit to Pialat’s filmmaking that he can provoke a sense of sympathy towards Francois throughout the film. Indeed his attempt to look after the cat, while ultimately (and explicitly) fruitless manages to instill a sense of humanity, or consequence within Francois, as does his decision to buy a gift for the first foster mother upon his departure. As a result the character is practically schizophrenic within his approach to life.
That Pialat manages to provoke such a questionable slant to the relationship between Francois and the first foster family is nothing short of genius. Not only does he suggest ill treatment, but also a loss of hope on the side of the foster parents (which would prove to be the ultimate answer to our query). The dad, portrayed by Pialat himself, clearly likes Francois, as evidenced in his near silence when it comes to the discussion of sending him back to the orphanage, and when he gives him money, yet when understood within the context that is fully formed throughout it is fully understandable as to why he doesn’t speak up for Francois on the occasions necessary. That Pialat manages to bring up the same matters with the second family proves a wonderful twist on audience expectations. The second family, headed by the wonderful M. and Mme. Thierry, themselves real life foster parents deal no better with Francois behavious, in spite of M. Thierry speaking up for his “son”.
While not technically their first scene on screen, the scene in which M. and Mme. Thierry explain to Francois and Raoul (the other child they have fostered) how they became foster parents serves as the perfect introduction not only to the couple, but to this section of the film. They are good people. This is enforced by the fact that they don’t mention money, which seems to be the driving force, or at least an important factor to the foster parents we have seen prior to this scene. Similarly, the earlier bonding scene between the M. Thierry and Michel is wonderful, with the way in which Raoul’s success in his algebra test an insight into what the future could potentially hold for Francois. Likewise, the scene in which Francois goes on the rampage is followed by one involving him helping M. Thierry to fix the door he broke the night before, with the tone returning to that of the earlier scene. Compared to the earlier family situation, the Thierry section of L’Enfance-Nue is stark in comparison, and again leads the audience to second guess Pialat. There are a number of scenes that reinforce this trail of thought though, which cements my suspicions that Pialat deliberately provoked us into feeling hope, with the whole intention that he would pull the rug from beneath our feet come the credit roll.
Prior to L’Enfance-Nue Pialat made a short documentary film entitled L’Amour Existe in 1960, a film that reminds more of Resnais and Godard than it does of the work that Pialat would go on to produce. The film is obsessed with class and inherited status, a theme that has clear undercurrents with the notion of the helpless orphans in L’Enfance-Nue, but remains a them that Pialat never fully explored in his career again. Perhaps I have read too much into it, but the opening beats of L’Enfance-Nue, in which a unionist march is practically ignored by our protagonists perhaps says more about Pialat’s attitude to overtly tackling notions of class than anything else within his oeuvre. That action reminds heavily of the scene in A Bout de Souffle, in which Michel Poiccard bypasses the American procession through Paris.
The dialogue of L’Enfance-Nue is very realistic, with note going to the scene on the train. The accompanying diegetic sound and nature of the conversation highly reminiscent of documentary, while the subject matter is equally striking (such as the concept of the AC), and the manner with which they are handled as such throwaway matters is disturbing. The way in which the senior staff member explains the situation to the new employee gives yet further opportunity to expand upon the documentary tone of the film, and while I’ve seen L’Enfance-Nue on numerous occasions in the past, this screening marked the first time I’ve found the film genuinely upsetting in relation to the subject matter of adoption. The scene in which the children are loaded into a car to be “delivered” to their new owners especially drew a heavy emotional reaction, as the little girl cried out for her mother. It’s very powerful, yet ultimately actually very subtle. The manner in which the orphans are chosen (“If it’s a black child again I don’t want it” “I’ll take it, I’ve seen that one before”), rather than simply being a damning look at the child services of 1960s France, feels more like a sympathetic standing on behalf of the children themselves.
Maurice Pialat has been referred to as the French John Cassavetes in the past, and with L’Enfance-Nue it’s easy to see why. Pialat employed “real” people for use in his films, as opposed to professional actors, and in the scenes combining “real” people and actors it’s practically impossible to decipher which is which. Likewise, Pialat used the home of the actors that played M. and Mme. Thierry (Rene and Marie-Louise Thierry), who in turn were a real life foster couple who’s own past mirrored that of their “characters” (the resistance tale actually happened to Rene Thierry, and his real-life sister from the story is the woman acting as his sister in the film). Pialat’s visual style is also reminiscent of Cassavetes, with the combination of beautifully shot, statically framed long takes contrasting wonderfully with the hand held “action” scenes. Indeed, Kent Jones once claimed that “More so than Michael Bay or Tsui Hark, Maurice Pialat is an action director”, and while it may be an altogether different tone of action cinema to that of Bay et al, it’s a perfectly apt label for Pialat. The editing of L’Enfance-Nue, in which time skips are use, time skips that would later go onto be something of a Pialat is employed to bring a sense of artistry, of the avant-garde to a verite-laden cinescape.
An obvious cinematic comparison for L’Enfance-Nue would be Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows. Indeed, Truffaut not only produced L’Enfance-Nue, but also persuaded Maurice Pialat to venture into filmmaking. The similarities between the two films are varied, but the great departure comes with the fact that Francois is malicious as opposed to Antoine Doinel being somewhat naughty. I looked at Passe Ton Bac d’Abord, Pialat’s own follow up to L’Enfance-Nue a few weeks back, which follows up the underlying subject matter nicely.
As the film reaches it’s climax, and Francois is living in a young offenders institute, a final piece of correspondence offers some hope that Francois may reform. As a member of the audience it is difficult, and almost heartbreaking to admit, but we no doubt find that as difficult to believe as the Thierry family. We too have lost hope.
Adam Batty is the Editor of Hope Lies at 24 Frames Per Second, and can be found on Twitter.