L’enfance nue (DVD Review)30 Aug, 2010 By: Mike Clark
In French with English subtitles.
Stars Michel Terrazon, Linda Gutemberg, Raoul Billery.
Not many of the late Maurice Pialiat’s films have gotten wide distribution in the United States, but here’s one I had never even heard of despite it being the writer/director’s feature debut. Whether it’s due to the obvious reason or not, my favorites of his tend to be the ones with heavy sexual dimensions: Loulou (1980), Police (1985) and especially 1983’s A Nos Amours (also a Criterion release). But this one has its moments — a lot of them, in fact.
Though it doesn’t seem to have been his intentions, it is difficult to watch this French drama with a foster-care backdrop without thinking of The 400 Blows (whose director, Francois Truffaut, was a friend and associate of Piliat’s). In a general way, lead Michel Terrazon looks a little like Blows’ Truffaut alter ego Jean-Pierre Leaud, and Terrazon’s character name here is “Francois.” What’s more, this kid, like Leaud’s Antoine Doinel from Blows and several follow-ups, is frequently in scrapes, despite moments of tender behavior that keep the viewer off balance.
The movie’s make-or-break moment comes early. Francois, with co-conspiring buddies, takes the cat belonging to the family with which he currently resides and drops it several floors down a stairwell. This is, as critic/essayist Philip Lopate says in a concise accompanying essay, a “deal-breaker” for many segments of the audience, though it’s revealing that Francois then begins to care for the surviving pet until he commits mayhem upon it a second time.
In other words, back and forth/back-and-forth — just like the angel-vs.-devil behavior of most children, even those who aren’t guilty of animal cruelty. And Pialiat’s style, which can be documentary-like in certain passages, tends to eschew transitions or character motivation or explanatory material. These would slow the movie down, whereas L’enfance clocks in at a very tidy 83 minutes.
The movie isn’t at all an indictment of the French foster home system, though in a TV interview included in the bonus section, Pialiat chides himself for withholding insights his research had revealed — as in the significant number of foster children who commit suicide. In fact, he chides himself on a lot of levels — taking the blame for this film’s commercial failure (following excellent reviews) because he failed to see, even after others warned him, that audiences wouldn’t want to see any movie on this subject.
This is a little off-center, even on general principles, given that the number of fine or even great films that failed to do business would go from here to the moon and then circle it many times. But in this specific case, the movie has many moments to touch the heart: Francois’s relationship with a bedridden grandmother in his second home; the gift he brings to his first foster mother after she basically tosses him permanently out of the house; a cute-as-can-be child who’s categorized as “unwanted”; some group singing at a wedding (a scene that oozes “French cinema”).
There’s also a lot to be gleaned from what’s in between the lines here: the humble living conditions in both of Francois’s homes; a saloon where Francois is routinely sold cigarettes as his foster father sits nearby with a younger daughter; and the anti-p.c. physical violence the second family doles out to Francois in one scene (not that I didn’t get a lot worse myself from about 5-6 teachers I had). The non-actors cast as the second parents basically play themselves, by the way — that is, the real-life foster parents they were.
From what we see in the Pialiat interview and what a couple longtime associates say in another bonus featurette, the filmmaker (who died in 2003) must have been a very complicated man — one to try the patience of every co-worker and then display surprise when they turned on him. After taking the blame for this film’s commercial shortcomings, he vowed to make more audience pictures — but then, as Lopate notes, ran off a string of “gloriously uncomfortable” works. L’enfance nue is, actually (cat aside), is quite accessible and journeys not an inch beyond the lives that uncountable people live everyday. But A Nos Amour — now, there’s a movie that sets the bar for stories of family dysfunction.