Amanda Mae Meyncke September 22, 2010
People make films for a variety of reasons: to entertain, to make money, to tell a personal story, or because they simply must. Some directors take advantage of a captive audience, and some are aware that cinema can be a gift, not a trap. Not so with Maurice Pialat, who made the French film L’enfance Nue with the aim of alienating the audience and of being intentionally difficult, and his goal was certainly met.
L’enfance Nue revolves around the constantly transient life of one 10-year-old boy caught up in the French foster care system. The boy himself is hard to read. Always calm, never given to excessive emotion, Francois (Michel Terrazon) treads the line between casually devastating and cautiously thoughtful. Shuttled from one foster home to another, his complicated personality and penchant for wanton destruction make him both unknowable and difficult to relate to. The film contains some devastating acts of cruelty, toward humans and animals alike. Though there’s nothing explicit or pointedly horrifying, the casual sadness of an unwanted child struggling to exist makes for an unpleasant film experience. The plot is simple; the meat of the story comes from the conversations and interactions between Francois and the people he is surrounded by, from vicious schoolchildren to his sweet older foster parents who try their best to be understanding.
L’enfance Nue is as depressing and dreary as a sweater left out in the rain. It’s well-acted by all involved, including the young actor at the center of it all, but there is little else to commend the film. There are no stunning visuals; in fact, little is even seen of an outside world — all that exists for the boy and his familial captors are walls and floors, doors and ceilings. This is a hard movie to love. The protagonist is a young boy who says little, surrounded by people who speak as if he were an object. Two separate families make the effort and attempt to reach out and extend grace, but this is often rejected or betrayed by Francois. At roughly an hour and 20 minutes, the film isn’t long, exactly, but there is something relentless about it that makes it feel infinitely long.
Maurice Pialat’s filmmaking is interesting, a mishmash of careful observation and then documentation of exterior displays. Time passes and we are privy only to separate moments, glimpses into meaningful passages in a life. The narrative is still easy to follow, but there’s no way to know if these moments are even part of a linear progression. L’enfance Nue can also be held as a documentary preservation of the way middle-lower class homes looked in 1967. This film is reminiscent of the legendary film about misspent youth 400 Blows, but there is little of the redemption or resolution Truffaut built in to his films.
Criterion has done a beautiful job with the restoration, putting obvious time into getting the color corrected the way Pialat wanted it. The film has been restored to the high Criterion standards, and includes vastly improved subtitles. Special features on this disc are plentiful, including Pialat’s first film, 1960′s L’amour existe, as well as a 50-minute documentary, Autour de “L’enfance nue,” which was shot just after the film itself. Phillip Lopate’s essay is excellent, providing historical context for this complicated film, introducing us to Maurice Pialat’s life and work, as well as displaying unfaltering insight into the deeper issues of the film. Though some people might consider it rude or in poor taste to stop a film halfway through, if the film is particularly difficult such as L’enfance Nue, I love to take out the essay and read it, hoping to find a reason to continue watching. Though I like to go into a film knowing little about it in order to form my own opinion, perhaps reading the essay before watching the film might make for a more enjoyable viewing. Other features include a visual essay by Kent Jones, a video interview with Pialat collaborators Arlette Langmann and Patrick Grandperret, and excepts from a television interview with Pialat from 1973. As usual, Criterion has made a direct effort to preserve all the most important interviews and information pertaining to the film, and though I may not like the film, I appreciate that it was done.
Though the film is touching at times, unless you’re a Pialat completist, I would recommend that you rent it before buying. The subject matter is grave enough that you may decide seeing it once is enough.
L’enfance Nue is available now from the Criterion Collection.
Categories: DVDTags: Criterion collection, Dvd reviews, L'enfance nue