Friday, 24 September 2010

L'enfance nue (1968)

Country: FRANCE

Naked Childhood

For the last five or six years I’ve been on/off collecting a series of DVD’s released by Eureka under their ‘Masters of Cinema’ imprint. In many ways this label is the nearest we have in the UK to the Criterion Collection, and they offer a wide range of world and art cinema in the best possible transfers. Between 2008 and 2010 ‘Masters of Cinema’ released a number of films by French filmmaker Maurice Pialat. I had steadfastly avoided these because I’d never heard of the man, but recently I took a punt on his 1968 debut feature film L’enfance nue (translates as Naked Childhood) and was very glad that I did. Pialat had directed the short film L’Amour Existe (1960), a dour and depressing travelogue through the working class suburbs of Paris, but little in that film (which is included on the Masters of Cinema DVD) could prepare one for the piercing naturalism of the startling L’enfance nue.

No doubt it was this frank and unflinching portrayal of childhood that led Francois Truffaut to co produce the film. Truffaut’s own contribution to French cinema’s childhood landscape Les quatre cents coups (aka The 400 Blows, 1959) is very much in mind, but Pialat removes any sense of sentimentality, and aims for a textured world that underplays the sociological concerns that are raised. Aside from an extended tracking shot of François (Michel Terrazon) running across a hard and barren field which mirrors a similar tracking shot in Truffaut’s film the tone and approach is vastly different. Although Pialat at the time denied a political or sociological motive its hard to be convinced by this from a film that opens with a demonstration by out of work miners. The impression of an alienated or excluded community is set up before we have even laid eyes on the enigmatic ten year old François, whose mannerisms, expressions, and intense stare are unforgettable and haunting.

The sense of displacement and abandonment that François endures as a result of being thrown from care home to foster family engenders a built in sense of unmotivated rebellion. This is illustrated in the first part of film in the randomness of François’s bad behaviour, and the inability of a working class family to come to terms with his mood swings, thieving, and truancy. That François doesn’t have his own bedroom and must sleep in a bed at the top of the stairs speaks volumes for the families failure to make him feel anything other than a transitory presence. His treatment of the pet cat, whilst cruel and sadistic, is illustrative of a boy who simply wishes too accelerate his inevitable return to the care home environment. Pialat steadfastly avoids showing this environment, preferring instead to show François within the structure of a family, in this respect a sense of a wider sociological statement about the state system of care for abandoned children is avoided. But in François’s quietude, symbolic transgressions, and furtively haunted face it is clear that something isn’t quite right with the system.

In the second half of the film François finds himself fostered by the Thierry’s - an old couple played by non professional actors. The advanced years of the couple seems to have a positive effect on François, especially the ancient grandmother whom he is able to confide in. The naivety of the Thierry’s is such that they consistently see the good within the unmotivated acts of violence and vandlism that François commits. They simply do not react in the manner he is accustomed too and as a result his acts of rebellion are punctured by their decency and goodness. François is also capable of equally surprising and touching expressions of love and affection such as his kiss on the cheek for Rene after he has regaled him with a tale of the resistance, and when he joins the grandmother in singing songs. The death of the grandmother is not an unpredictable event and its no surprise that this event deeply affects François’s already frail psyche. The film ends with François returned to the care home after causing a motor accident, but surprisingly this event takes place off screen. This is a strategy that Pialat adopts throughout, and it reminded me a lot of Yasujiro Ozu, who regularly had scenes of great importance occur off screen. This all adds to the sense of reality, and shows that actor Michel Terrazon’s position in the film is like François’s - transitory and rootless. The observational approach of cinematic naturalism has rarely been so impressive, and it is brought to life by non professionals who in some cases have lived the experiences. Unflinching and unsentimental L’enfance nue is a quiet and subtly devastating portrayal of rejection and disaffection.

© Shaun Anderson - 2010

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