02 November 2008

L'enfance-nue (Naked childhood)
L'enfance-nue DVD
directed by Maurice Pialat
1968 / colour / 80 minutes (plue extra items)
in French, with optional English subtitles
2-disc restored edition from Masters of Cinema / Eureka (UK), 2008

Maurice Pialat’s 1968 debut feature, L’enfance-nue (Naked childhood), is by no means an easy film to watch – but past the discomforting events depicted, it’s one of the most compelling, vital, and ultimately ‘real’ works of cinema that I’ve ever experienced. The film follows a young French boy, François (Michel Tarrazon), on his travels (travails might be more appropriate) through the French foster-care system. Families were paid stipends by the state to take in children who had been abandoned, offered up for adoption for various reasons, or had been removed from the homes of abusive parents. Pialat wisely chose to use mostly non-professional actors in the film – and while many directors have taken this road in their work for one reason or another, it’s especially effective in this case, the result being a film that is so close to the feel of a documentary that the audience is drawn into the boy’s story far more deeply than might otherwise be the case. (In the spirit of both self-honesty and openness with any readers, I have to say that the fact that I was an adopted child myself most likely added immeasurably to the effect the film had on me as a viewer.)
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François is an intelligent child, but troubled. The film makes the point that almost any child who is adopted or placed in a foster home, no matter how much love and care is given or how hard the host family tries to open their hearts to them, will be affected by emotional issues stemming from their situation. These might be overt or subconscious, but their presence is undeniable. In the case of François, who was placed into the system at a very young age, and has no real memory of his mother, it’s particularly heartbreaking. His feelings of separateness, his inability to connect with his foster parents on a meaningful, deep level, engender within him a sense of hopelessness and inevitability – he will never truly belong to anyone, and feels that repeated rejection is his destiny. While he is given love, shelter and sustenance from his hosts, after a while his innate desperation causes him to act out in ways that leave them no choice but to send him back into the system, to another group home or foster family. It’s as if he feels that there is no reason for him to fight against his fate, so he commits misdeeds in order to speed up the process.
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He is shown at first in the home of a couple who appear to be in their late thirties or early forties – they have other foster children as well, and are troubled by François’ seeming inability to get along, to behave himself. He steals – both from family members and from local shops – and hangs with a gang of boys who seem intent on misbehaving in some very disturbing ways. In one scene, he and his mates are shown dropping his foster-sister’s cat down a multiple-level stairwell, apparently in a misguided ‘experiment’ to see if it will really land on its feet. (Needless to say, as disturbing as this scene is, it was shot in such a way that the animal was not really harmed.) The cat is, of course, injured gravely – when his sister is distraught over this, he promises to care for the animal, assuring her that it will recover. When it ultimately dies, and she inquires about it, he callously draws a finger across his own throat to indicate the animal’s fate – and receives a slap across the face from the girl as a reward. His foster parents see this behavior as the final straw, and call the social worker in charge of his case to request that he be taken from them.
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In a gesture that might be seen as calculated by some, François uses some of the money his foster dad has given him to buy a parting gift – a scarf – for his foster mother, presenting it to her as he is being led out the door by the social worker. The conflicting emotions on both sides are very honestly depicted – while the mother feels that she is making the only choice she can realistically make for the sake of her entire family, she feels the bond that she nonetheless feels for the boy tearing at her. As for François, I believe the gift was given from the heart – for one reason because he purchased it instead of stealing it – and his farewell look from behind the window of the departing automobile shows real regret and sadness, as well as resignation.

The family with whom François is seen living for the greatest part of the film is an older couple, M and Mme Thierry (René Thierry and Marie-Louise Thierry), called ‘Pépère’ and Mémère’, respectively, probably in their sixties. We learn that they were each married before, and have children and grandchildren from those unions, but were too old to have children together. There are other foster children in their home, but the only one we see interacting with François with any regularity is Raoul (Henri Puff), who appears to be in his early teens.
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Also living in the home is Mme Thierry’s aged mother, ‘Maman’ (brilliantly played by one of the only professional actors in the film, Marie Marc) – it is with this old woman that François bonds most closely, in a touchingly depicted but very believable relationship. Pépère and Mémère have seen a lot in their day – his stories of being a member of the French underground during the war captivate François – and have learned the lessons of patience over the course of their lives…and despite the honest, open love they attempt to give François, this patience will be stretched to the breaking point.
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Once again, he begins stealing and hanging out with groups of boys who are older and up to levels of mischief beyond that which might be expected from a boy his age. In one particularly destructive prank, he and some friends stand on a bridge and toss some pretty hefty stones down at approaching cars – one hits its mark and causes a serious accident, which gets the police involved and wakes the Thierrys up to the fact that they might not be able to handle this child, despite their best intentions. Once again, François has felt the subconscious need to nudge his fate along – there might not be a traditional ‘happy ending’ to a film such as this, but it’s an experience that will no doubt touch viewers very deeply, on varied levels (depending on their own background and feelings).

Pialat’s style of shooting and editing, which of course developed further as his career progressed, is fascinating to see in its infancy here. Rather than striving for smooth transitions from one scene to the next, he makes the audience do a bit of work, which I believe causes the viewer to become even more involved in the film than would otherwise be the case. Relation to the film’s timeline is not always apparent from scene to scene – just how long the break between them is, relative to the story itself, is not always clear. Is the scene we’re watching happening immediately after the previous one, or have several days or weeks passed? Pialat gives us very little chance to figure this out as the film plays out before us – it is only with hindsight that these aspects become more clearly defined. It’s one more technique that moves this film into a different category than most dramatic narratives – and one that causes it to burrow more deeply into the psyche of the viewer, ensuring a more lingering effect, giving cause for deeper reflection. Similarly, Pialat frames his shots unconventionally – rather than rely on close-ups and constant camera movement, he places the camera in a stationary spot, allowing it to take in the entire room. The characters move about in the space according to the story’s requirements (much of the movement and dialogue, while suggestions were made by the director, was improvised and spontaneous – a technique he used repeatedly in his career), giving the viewer more of a sense of actually being in the room with them, further heightening the feeling of reality in the film.

In one of the interviews included as a bonus item in this carefully-assembled two-disc release, Pialat appears on a French television show devoted to films that were well-received critically, but not commercially successful. The host introduces the film – which was apparently shown in its entirety – then speaks with Pialat afterwards. The director begins his discussion of the film in an almost self-deprecating manner, then turns the tables on the host, making the point that true creativity in cinema should never be stymied by the lack of commercial success – there are subjects to tackle and points to be made that are far too important to be ignored by such a vital medium. He even takes the French film-going public to task for not having the courage to support films that they might find ‘uncomfortable’ to watch. There are also other interviews included, featuring not only Pialat, but associates who have worked with him, discussing his art – as well as a documentary on the making of the film (a welcome treat, and unusual for a film made in 1968), which includes a round-table discussion by several former foster children who have formed a support group to aid others who have passed through the system in recognizing and coping with their resulting emotional issues.

The biggest treat for me, however, is the inclusion in the set of Pialat’s short film L’amour existe (Love exists), from 1960 – a stunningly effective 19-minute look at the numbing effect on French society caused by the emergence of sterile, nondescript suburbs which sprang up around the major cities after World War II. While rebuilding was a necessary occurrence, the short laments the lack of access to culture and recreation in these projects. The images are extremely moving, and the narration is right on target – there were aspects of society that were lost, never to be fully recovered…not the least of which was a sense of real hope for a productive and fulfilling life without the vitality and release provided by art and nature.

Masters of Cinema have done a wonderful job with this release – despite the age of the feature, their painstaking restoration has resulted in an image that is clear and compelling, with little visible damage artifacts. The restored sound tops off the presentation – it’s as if we’re viewing the film on its first release, in 1968. This is a great addition to their library (and to mine!), and a great service to film lovers.

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