Maurice Pialat was already in his 40s when he embarked on his feature debut, but I like very much that he made it about what we used to call a “problem child.” I’ve read that Pialat was something of an overgrown problem child himself, tempestuous, demanding, and difficult to work with. L’enfance nue (1968) shows 10-year-old François (Michel Terrazon) being dismissed from one provincial foster home and shuttled off to another in the first 20 minutes, by which point we’ve already seen him throw a cat down several flights of stairs. Pialat was not himself a foster child, yet he repeatedly assured anyone who asked that L’enfance nue was a kind of self-portrait. Collaborators describe Pialat as having developed abandonment issues very early in life, feelings he could plausibly project upon François. But I wonder if when Pialat said L’enfance nue was about him he was actually referring to his adult self. This is a story about a shit disturber. It is also, incidentally, a truly remarkable, unnerving, yet also playful and affectionate movie by a filmmaker whose work most of us should probably know much more of.
I only really became aware of Pialat, who died in 2003, after being prompted to review Loulou (80) for Edmonton's Metro Cinema’s screening a few years back. It’s haunted me since, as a defiantly unresolved portrait of working class routines and erotic self-actualization, as a performance from Gerard Depardieu the likes I’ve which I’ve never seen, and as the closest thing in French cinema to a Bruce Springsteen song. I’d seen Pialat’s Van Gogh (91) when I was very young and recall being impressed by how little it catered to my notions of the eponymous artist’s persona or what bio-pics are supposed to do, by how immersed I became in its portrait of the milieux Van Gogh quietly slipped through. Unfortunately Pialat’s name vanished from my thoughts afterwards, probably because like so many of the most gifted post-New Wave filmmakers—Jean Eustache and Philippe Garrel spring to mind as members of this group I’ve belatedly come to cherish—he failed to gain any significant foothold in North American movie culture. But we’re coming around. Criterion’s already released Pialat’s À nos amours (83) and is now offering L’enfance nue for our consideration, accompanied by some excellent supplements, like critic Kent Jones’ video essay and Pialat’s early short L’amour existe (60), which inspired François Truffaut to help produce L’enfance nue. (Pialat based François on a real kid with the same name, so apparently it's only a coincidence that the character shares the same Christian name as Truffaut, who less than a decade earlier made his debut with one of world cinema's defining movies about difficult childhood.)
L’enfance nue might have been a documentary, and the residue of this early conception remains in its opening images of a demonstration, but more pointedly in the camera’s dexterous responsiveness to the action. Most of the players are non-professionals, and several, most memorably Marie-Louise and Rene Thierry, who become François’ sexagenarian second foster parents, were essentially asked to tell their own stories within the boundaries of Pialat’s loose, often elliptical narrative framework. The approach imbues L’enfance nue with an unsentimental yet touching sense of the real. Terrazon however was not an actual foster child and this was probably a wise choice, given that it resulted in a central performance that never for one second comments on itself. We see François do both terrible and tender things and it’s more compelling that he barely seems cognizant of the difference. We see his face when others aren’t watching and he’s clearly listening to what’s going on around him, yet he doesn’t seem to listen with set expectations as to what response his actions will incite. We see François make discoveries—such as the Polaroid camera or Marie Marc’s wonderful, largely bedridden Nana’s mischievous sense of humour—and in these moments our internal scorecard of François’ positive or negative traits falls away while we observe him experience a moment fully. He’ll eventually experience a wedding, a death, and serious punishment for his deeds, and through it all Pialat’s knack for letting a scene breathe before abruptly moving on the next one invites us to simply take it in as we go. It’s only after the final fade-to-black that we can begin to comprehend just how much we’ve been through.