By Zachariah Rush.
By the time Maurice Pialat’s feature film debut, L’enfance nue, was released in 1968, Pialat already had a body of work comprising documentary and short films spanning close to two decades that began with the dark experimental piece Isabelle aux Dombes (1951).
L’enfance nue follows young François Fournier (Michel Terrazon), a foster child surrendered to the care of Social Services by his mother and left to the machinations of a less than sympathetic system. His father, who was most likely a miner, died when François was young so his mother, being unable to raise him on her own, put him into foster care under “temporary placement,” meaning that she can retrieve him at any time—though she never does. We first meet François in the home of foster parents Simone (Linda Gutemberg) and Roby (Roual Billerey), who find him too troublesome and disruptive to care for. They complain that he refuses to eat, urinates around his bed, and leers at his foster sister Josette as their mother bathes her. After François throws Josette’s cat down five flights of stairs, resulting in the cat’s death, Simone and Roby feel they have no choice but to return François to Social Services.
François finds himself placed with Mémère and Pépère Thierry, an elderly couple played by real life foster parents Marie-Louise and René Thierry. The Thierrys already have an adolescent foster child Raoul (Henri Puff), a much younger girl, and Nana, a bed-ridden grandmother, in their care. It is here with the Thierrys that the dynamics of François’ childhood are exposed. He is loving and tender, kissing Pépère after hearing WWII stories of the Resistance; he is quiet as Mémère sits on Pépères lap relating their past lives, marriages and children; François is playfully devious when asking Nana if she had ever been a man’s mistress; and yet, he is nonchalantly violent throwing a knife at Roaul’s head in the dark, spilling soup over him without provocation, smoking cigarettes, drinking secretly, and throwing rail road bolts from an overpass with a group of juvenile delinquents.
It is the documentarian sensibility of Pialat that allows us to witness the actions of the boy with the same nakedness as anthropological footage. Anthropologists know cannibals eat human flesh but in their milieu they cannot pass judgement, they can only observe and notate. The same is true in L’enfance nue: we cannot pass judgement on the boy, nor can we pass judgement on the perceived failures of foster parents and the care system, we can only observe and notate. There is neither narrative buttressing nor ethical framework to provide a context for François’ actions; rather, François acts and Pialat’s camera catches him in that act. There are few cues indicating typical narrative movements in time—“How long since?” or “How soon after did that occur?” we ask without response—rather we see one unadorned and unembellished gesture of François followed by another. And it is perhaps in the sense of being unadorned and exhibited without prejudicial or philosophical accoutrements that François’ childhood is naked. Another possibility for this observation could be François’ speech or lack of it. Harold Pinter once described dialogue or speech as ‘a constant stratagem to cover nakedness.’¹ We find with François that there is very little dialogue. He never says what he is thinking or expresses how he feels nor does Pialat ever attempt to psychologize or explain why François commits certain actions; he remains taciturn and reveals more about himself through the subtle language of gesture, facial expression and destructive impulse than by word. Often his eyes reveal some glimmer of affect, or he grins or smirks while nothing is ever said. From this point of view the paucity of dialogic language exposes François’ being far more nakedly.
The same sensibility of the documentarian’s distant involvement is also evident in the short film L’amour existe (1960), which is included in the supplements on the DVD. The film offers twenty minutes of observation of the squalor and impoverished lifestyles of those who live only two miles from the Champs-Élysées. However, at times the narrator begins to sound like a Party Political Broadcast, such as the recitation of statistics and when comparisons are made between the architectural design and structure of high rise apartment blocks and those of Nazi concentrations camps. But at the end of L’amour existe, Pialat adds an illustrative caveat. He shows the stone relief The Departure of the Volunteers 1792 upon the Arc de Triomphe, where the glorious hand of Bellona is rallying and commanding the people when seen from the front, but with a simple change of angle the same hand offers the silent gesture of a mendicant begging. The image, like cinema, is what it is: difference is an attribute of perspective.
Zachariah Rush is a prize-winning poet, filmmaker, and film critic having regularly contributed to Film International and numerous volumes of Intellect’s Directory of World Cinema including: Japan Vol. 2, East Europe, Sweden, Belgium, France, India. In addition, he has also contributed to the Paris, Marseille and Las Vegas volumes of Intellect’s World Film Locations series. He has just completed the writing of a book on dialectical dramaturgy to be published by McFarland and is currently adapting Albert Camus’ novel L’étranger into a libretto for Gallimard, Paris.
¹ Harold Pinter, Various Voices: Prose, Poetry, Politics, 1948—1998, (New York: Grove Press, 1999), p. 24.
L’enfance nue (1968)
Director: Maurice Pialat
Screenplay: Arlette Langmann, Maurice Pialat
Producers: Claude Berri, François Truffaut, Guy Benier et al.
Director of Photography: Claude Beausoleil
With: Michel Terrazon (François), Linda Gutemberg (Simone), Pierette Deplanque (Josette), Marie-Louise Thierry (Mémère Thierry), René Thierry (Pépère)
Runtime: 83 mins
DVD: U.S. 2010
Produced and Distributed by: Criterion Collection
Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1
Sound Mix: Monaural
Extras: New restored high-definition digital transfer. Also included is Maurice Pialat’s short 1960 film L’amour existe, about life on the outskirts of Paris. Autour de “L’enfance nue,” a fifty minute documentary shot just after the film’s release. Excerpts from a 1973 French television interview with director Maurice Pialat. New visual essay by critic Kent Jones on the film and Pialat’s cinematic style. Video interview with Pialat collaborators Arlette Langmann and Patrick Grandperret. New and improved English subtitle translation. Plus, a booklet featuring an essay by critic Philip Lopate.