Judge Gordon Sullivan is campaigning to get a French New Wave machine installed for surfing the River Seine.
"Maurice Pialat puts his distinctive stamp on the lost-youth film with this devastating portrait of a damaged foster child."
I love the French New Wave. I think Rohmer, Truffaut, and especially Godard opened the eyes of international cinema to many previously untapped aspects of the medium. Still, I sometimes feel bad for their fellow French men and women. Those heady times of creation between roughly 1958 and 1968 cast a long shadow, one that directors working in the country at the time and for several years after had a hard time escaping. One director in some danger of being forgotten beside his more famous contemporaries is Maurice Pialat. Although his documentary work began in the midst of the New Wave, his first feature L'Enfance Nue was made after the Wave broke following the '68 riots. Criterion presents this interesting bit of French film history—their second Pialat film after A Nous Amours—with all the gravity its subject demands.
Facts of the Case
François (Michel Terranzon) is a rambunctious 10-year-old boy whose mother has just given him up for adoption. As the movie progresses, François is bounced from foster home to foster home as his behavior becomes more and more intolerable.
The obvious cinematic touchstone for L'Enfance Nue (or Naked Childhood), a story of a young boy with a dissatisfying (foster) home life who turns to increasingly outlandish acts of juvenile delinquency, must be The 400 Blows, Truffaut's classic 1959 film. However, the comparison is not entirely apt. Certainly there are surface similarities between the two films, but Pialat distinguishes himself from his predecessor in a number of interesting ways. First, he refuses to romanticize young François. Instead, he presents a complicated character who can be both brutal and sweet in equal measure. Second, despite the neo-realist bent of much of the cinematography, Pialat's film is not trying to be beautiful, and it never approaches the kind of lyricism of the famous final shot of The 400 Blows. Finally, as a consequence of the previous two points, Pialat's film presents a much more balanced portrait of the system he indicts. Certainly the foster system is shown as broken in L'Enfance Nue, but no facile answers or simple villains are offered as excuse.
I think, at least at this stage in his career, Pialat had much more in common with Lindsay Anderson of Britain, whose scathing indictment of another institution that brutalizes children (If…) was released the same year as L'Enfance Nue. Their affinities run even deeper. Both started out in other art forms (Pialat trained as a painter, Anderson as a stage director), both began their film careers in documentary, and both would ultimately direct only a handful of features despite long careers. Their styles were strikingly divergent, but taken together their work shows several of the important trends going on in the international film community at the end of the 1960s.
Comparisons aside, L'Enfance Nue is an uncomfortable portrait of a child in serious danger of being perverted by the foster care system. Because of his youth, François is still impressionable, and Pialat refuses to tell the audience if his protagonist is a hopeless sociopath or simply acting out due to a lack of attention and love. Similarly, the foster system is shown as broken, with caregivers primarily interested in money more than helping children, but none of them are particularly monstrous either. These ambiguities raise François' story almost to the level of myth, so that anyone who ever felt even the slightest bit of abandonment or desire to act out can sympathize and ultimately indentify with his situation.
Criterion have done their usual masterful job in preserving L'Enfance Nue on DVD. In a blog post just before the release of the film, the disc's technical director discussed the difficulty of getting accurate color timing with older films such as L'Enfance Nue. Even before reading his comments, I noticed that the film has a distinct look that somehow screams 1960s to me. The blog post especially highlighted how yellow the film was intended to look, which makes the image look less natural. However, that yellow tint sits on the film like a layer of texture, adding to the ambiguities of plot and character. In addition to the color, the rest of the transfer is excellent as well. Print damage is minimal, grain is generally appropriate, and no serious compression artifacts mar the image. The mono French sound is adequate, with easily audible dialogue and no distracting hiss or distortion.
The extras provide some interesting contexts for L'Enfance Nue. First up is Pialat's first documentary, L'Amour Existe. Over shots of town and countryside, a voice narrates the experience of growing up near the edges of Paris. Mainly it's a curiosity, but it serves one important function paired with L'Enfance Nue. It shows that the latter's sometimes awkward cinematographic choices were done deliberately to achieve an effect because L'Amour Existe shows a slightly more calculated, formal approach to filming than Pialat's feature. There's also a contemporary 50-minute documentary that examines the production of L'Enfance Nue alongside the French foster system of the time. It sheds light on both the film's production and subject, and it has aged surprisingly well. What has not aged so well is a 1973 interview conducted to accompany the first television screening of L'Enfance Nue: everything from the hairstyles to the clothing and set conspire to distract from Pialat's thoughts on the film. Critic Kent Jones also contributes a "visual essay" that discusses Pialat's themes and shows the audience clips from some of Pialat's influences. It's most interesting because its footage from the film was taken from an unrestored source, and the contrast with the final Criterion transfer is instructive. Finally, there's a new interview with Arlette Langmann and Patrick Grandperret, who worked with Pialat, discussing his themes and style. The included booklet features an appreciation of the film by Phillip Lopate that also provides a solid history of the film and its reception.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Early on in L'Enfance Nue, our young protagonist throws a cat from a great height; this will probably be a breaking point for many viewers. It's an uncomfortable scene, one that is important in establishing François' character, but not an easy one to watch. The film is also without a significant plot in the traditional sense. Although François' antics escalate, there's very little narrative drive towards an obvious conclusion going on. Those who don't want to deal with art-house conventions should probably skip this one.
Purists may argue about Criterion's choice of color tinting for the film. Although I am convinced of the arguments for the current color scheme (and I also just like the way it looks), other's might argue for a more naturalistic use of colors than this transfer provides.
It doesn't quite rise to the ranks of the best French films of the 1960s, L'Enfance Nue remains relevant as a brilliant debut feature, a fascinating portrait of childhood, and an indictment of a failing social system. Criterion has once again done an older film a service by releasing L'Enfance Nue with a solid transfer and informative extras that go a long way towards providing context for this bit of film history.
Although I wouldn't want to take care of him, François and L'Enfant Nue are not guilty.
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