September's film was chosen by Adam Batty at Hope Lies
Written by Arlett Langmann & Maurice Pialat
Directed by Maurice Pialat
As Francois stays with the agency, a sort of way station, the foster care director and his associates try to figure out which home would suit him best. We observe their process as they go over several children who need homes. It seems the director isn’t quite as involved in the lives of the orphans as one would hope when he reads out “Michaud, Magalie”, and his assistant reminds him, “the one with the pointed hat”. It may seem like film maker Maurice Pialat is judging the director, the first family and even the overall system, but in reality he offers no easy answers. There are no villainous adults, or simple characters at all, for that matter. Rather, Pialat is just letting things play out realistically with no bias, allowing the viewer to draw his or her own conclusions.
Released in 1968, L’enfance Nue is astoundingly mature and assured for a debut film, much like The 400 Blows, a movie it is often compared to. While both films bear similarities, they ultimately differ aesthetically and thematically. Pialat’s style is more akin to the realism and humanism of American filmmaker, John Cassavetes. The director of The 400 Blows, Francois Truffaut co-produced and played a role in convincing Pialat to make it in the first place.
Later on in the film, Francois is placed in a home with a kind, old couple that are already housing an older boy, and taking care of the woman’s elderly mother. They greet Francois lovingly and admirably accept him as one of their own. At this point we expect a turn for the better in our young protagonist’s behaviour, but it soon becomes evident that that will not be the case. He continues to be disobedient and even frequently steals from the house. Francois hangs out with the wrong crowd and even shows signs of violence. In one startling moment he throws a knife that narrowly misses the head of his older stepbrother. In his most dangerous act yet, he throws pieces of scrap metal at cars from an overpass. Eventually, he gets a direct hit and causes a car to swerve and crash. Francois flees but is fervently pursued by one of the people from the car and is eventually caught.
Having discovered this, the foster family has a meeting with the agency director wherein they vent about all their troubles. It seems even this wonderful couple can’t handle Francois. He is held in a detention centre, where he is to stay for 6 months. It is unlikely such treatment will help Francois, as every method of care, be it strict or flexible does him no good. The film ends when the old couple receives a letter from Francois. In the letter, Francois expresses remorse and longing, and clearly appreciated their effort and love.
The one complaint of L’enfance Nue I’ve discovered is that Francois is too unlikable a main character. While I understand this perspective, I never truly felt distant from Francois. Even when he threw a cat down a flight of stairs, my empathy was tested but not broken. I do think he is a sociopath, but his redeeming moments, such as the aforementioned letter or a gift he gave to his first foster mother, attest to his humanity.
Each character is treated with fairness rare in a film about how life is unfair. Pialat brings surprising and natural warmth to L’enfance Nue. I haven’t seen other works of his oeuvre, but clearly he is an artist with considerable ability. He acutely deals with the subject matter in a matter-of-fact fashion. Like I mentioned, he offers no easy answers, but I did find a clue. Each character, or in the case of the agency, each entity, treats Francois like he is different. Whether their methods differ or not, everyone makes Francois feel like an outsider. The one exception being the elderly mother being taken care of at Francois’ foster home. In the brief screen time she has, she treats Francois like an adult, and to my mind it is no coincidence that he becomes devastated when she passes on later in the film.
Maurice Pialat’s film is a morally complex and sharp debut. It feels loose and alive, allowing it to breathe during each scene. The audience can interact with it intellectually and emotionally without being subject to biased intentions. Pialat refuses to use sentimentality or to make a contrived family drama. Instead he provides a fresh and brilliant take on the territory Truffaut explored with The 400 Blows.
Pialat offers no characters for us to blame for how Francois has turned out. It would be easy to simply blame Francois, himself, but I think it is best to look at the society he, and other sociopaths, come from. I believe that if you form a society that enforces boundaries and rules, you are guaranteed to have those who will absolutely not abide them. Such a social structure can never work as planned. Is it the fault of those who break the rules, or of those who made the rules in the first place? I believe the latter.