Although I consider myself fairly knowledgeable about French cinema of the 1960s and 70s (more than of French cinema of this millennium), I don’t recall ever having heard of Maurice Pialat (1925-2003) before picking up a 2010 Criterion Edition of his 1968 “L’enfance nue” (Naked Childhood). It was Pialat’s first movie and had, if not echoes, some similarities to the first feature film made by Francois Truffaut (Les Quatre Cents Coups/400 Blow, 1959), so it is not particularly surprising to learn that Truffaut co-produced L’enfance nue.”
The film looks at (without judging or signaling to viewers how to judge) a ten-year-old boy social services places with foster parents. François (Michel Terrazon) is not a kleptomaniac, but there seems to me something compulsive about his thieving. Though he does some other reprehensible things in addition to stealing, it is difficult not to feel some sympathy for him.
IMO he is treated well by both pairs of foster parents, the first of whom (Linda Gutemberg and Raoul Billerey) have a daughter who is their biological child; the second (older) couple (Marie-Louise and Rene Thierry) is raising an older foster son Raoul (Henri Puff) who does not pick on François (though François is beaten up by bigger boys his first day in his new school).
François bonds with the old foster mother’s mother (Marie Marc), who lives in the same household and sings him stories. This does not stop him from pilfering coins from her coin purse, however. He also helps himself to wine in secret and champagne at an engagement party for one of the couple’s biological children. He also smokes and hangs out with proto-thugs from a housing project. And he definitely likes to break things!
Pialat used non-actors, very much in the Italian neo-realist tradition (or, by then, the modus operandi of Robert Bresson). None seemed wooden, and a certain blankness form Terrazon fit the guardedness of a child rejected by his birth parents (when he was four years old) and, I presume, some others before the first ones seen within the movie… and reminiscent of the fairly likeable (indeed arguably, romanticized) juvenile delinquent Antoine Doinel whom Jean-Pierre Léaud played in Truffaut’s “Les Quatre Cents Coups.” The social workers are portrayed more sympathetically than the reformatory personnel in Truffaut’s movie, and the foster parents (and siblings) are in no sense villains. François is vexing, something of a psychopath but seeming even to his vexed elderly foster mother to have “a good heart.” (Charm is often manufactured by psychopaths, of course. And IMO self-knowledge is generally in short supply.)
Pialat had tried to be a painter before taking up film-making and the colors (especially saturated yellows and green-painted metal fences) are quite vibrant. The film was shot by Claude Beausoleil.
As usual for a Criterion release, there is a bounty of special features, including a 50-minute documentary on the foster care system of France, “L’amour existe, a 20-minute voiceover documentary about the degradation of Paris suburbs that was Pialat’s first film, some temporal contextualization (Fassbinder, Cassaveates, et al.) from Kent Jones, an interview with Pialat collaborators Arlette Langmann and Patrick Grandperret made shortly after Pialat’s death.
I was most struck by a 1973 interview of Pialat that followed its first telecasting in France. The look of the interviewer is freaky, but what most interested me was Pialat saying that he could understand why audiences stayed away from “L’enfance nue,” that is a kind of movie he himself would not have gone to see. He opined that 45 minutes of it were good (he did not specify which; I’d exclude the lengthy wedding to which François is very peripheral), but castigated himself for not showing how so many foster children were and are driven to kill themselves. (He does not comment specifically in the optimism of the ending.) He made clear that he was raised by his biological parents (as, btw, was Terrazon), and though he thought he was miserable at the time of his youth, he realized in researching foster children that he was more loved and even happier than he supposed when he was an adolescent himself.
L’enfance nue” won the Prix Jean Vigo in 1969. Pialat’s Sous le soleil de Satan (Under the Sun of Satan), starring Géreard Depardieu and Sandrine Bonnaire, based on a novel by Georges Bernanos (Diary fo a Country Priest) won the Palme d’Or, the highest award, at the 1987 Cannes Film Festival. (I may even have seen it; I’ve certainly seen a list of all Palme d’Or winners!)