by Ed Howard
Maurice Pialat’s debut feature was L’enfance nue, a quiet, unassuming film about childhood confusion and isolation, following the lead of his predecessors in the French film tradition, Zero For Conduct and The 400 Blows. Like those Jean Vigo and François Truffaut films, Pialat’s first film concerns itself with a troubled youth, a delinquent drifting aimlessly through an unstable childhood where everything seems transitory and he has nothing to hold onto. François (Michel Terrazon) has been abandoned by his birth parents, who have thrust him into the foster care system without fully relinquishing their parental rights. The result is that everything is always “temporary” for François, he can never settle down into a permanent home with a permanent family or living situation. He’s perpetually wary, always aware that things could change at any moment, that he could easily be shuffled around to another home, another family, or else to an institution of some kind. In the film’s first half hour, he’s living with a family who are taking care of him, but who are reaching the end of their patience with his bad behavior. They profess to love him and treat him as well as their adopted daughter Josette (Pierette Deplangue), but this is a hollow assurance coming soon after the revelation of the disparities in the two children’s bedrooms. Josette has a lovely, beautifully decorated room of her own — “everything she dreams, she can see when she’s awake,” her mother poetically coos — while François’ bed is shoved awkwardly into a corner of a landing in the hallway, the only spare space for him in the cramped little home.
It’s obvious that François feels destabilized by his situation, by the impermanence of his life, by how apparent it is that no one intends to keep him forever. Indeed, once this family grows tired of dealing with his rambunctious behavior, his tendency to steal and be difficult, they simply decide to send him away. This is a child’s nightmare, the fear of being discarded like this, but for François it is a prosaic reality, a fact of his transitory, migratory existence. He has a surprisingly tender goodbye with this temporary family — kissing his sort-of sister on the cheek, giving his sort-of mother a present — and then he seems to forget about them entirely when he’s sent to live with another family. This elderly couple (Marie-Louise Thierry and René Thierry) treats the boy with more kindness and patience than he is used to, and he seems to feel real affection for them, and for the old woman’s even older mother (Marie Marc), who François calls Granny. This family still can’t stabilize François, not really, and he continues his troubled ways, hanging out with rough kids who smoke, steal, fight, and in one scene, watch in awe as an older boy carves his initials into his own arm. But François is moved at least a little by their care: in a pivotal scene, he pulls out Granny’s wallet while the old woman is sleeping, leafing through the life savings contained within, but surprisingly does not steal the money, instead simply placing it back. It’s perhaps the most genuine act of goodness that François can do.
Pialat’s rough, observational style treats François’ life with near-documentary directness, a verité intimacy with the rhythms of daily life. The camera drifts along with François, following his aimless wandering and his acts of vandalism or pointless cruelty. Though the camera frequently pushes right up against the young boy, intruding into his already cramped space, Pialat maintains an emotional distance from his central character, never attempting to explain him. François likely couldn’t explain anything about himself; he doesn’t even seem to know why he does anything. At one point, after picking up a repaired shoe, he’s kicking it through the streets and abruptly kicks it down a sewer grating. He seems to instantly regret it, staring blankly at the spot where the shoe disappeared, as though wondering what he’d accomplished. Pialat has a real feel for the aimlessness of this boy’s life, the pointlessness of what he does and how he spends his time, the long periods of boredom and frustration.
But the film is not without its joys as well, minor as they might be. Pialat’s depiction of childhood — even a childhood as rough as this one — is equally sensitive to the frustrations and the pleasures of being a young boy. François’ rootlessness is the source of his sadness and disconnectedness, but in other ways he is remarkably free, able to do almost anything he wants. Pialat captures moments of joy and pleasure amidst the boy’s lonely life, some of them spent with friends, like the scene where he and a couple of other would-be toughs stand around smoking, and François goofily puts the cigarette the wrong way into his mouth, laughing and looking at the camera afterward. Many of the film’s other moments of pleasure, though, come from tentative, unexpected connections with his foster family. This family cares for him in a way that François is not used to, and a scene where the old man shows the boy photos of people he knew in the French Resistance is touching and sweet, especially when François kisses the old man on the cheek. He also seems to feel a real affection for Granny, with whom he shares the newspaper comic section, exchanging jokes and stories.
Even with his new older brother Raoul (Henri Puff), François has moments of brotherly camaraderie, as when they playfully wrestle together one night. But such moments are fleeting and often tinged with danger; later that night, François, again in a spirit of play, throws a knife at Raoul, so that it embeds itself in the wall right beside his head. François is ill-equipped to handle normal family life for any sustained amount of time. Without becoming a pat psychological study or sociological treatise, L’enfance nue deals seriously and subtly with the problems caused by a lack of strong familial attachments and stability. Pialat’s debut is a gentle, ambling little movie, with a real eye for detail and the way actions inform character. The sensibility developed here, loose and improvisational and realistic, would be further refined in Pialat’s subsequent work, but already L’enfance nue reveals a filmmaker of prodigious talent making his entrance.