There are no easy answers in L’enfance Nue, the debut feature film from French filmmaker Maurice Pialat. A parentless boy is transferred from one foster home to another, the decision spurred by a stream of behavior that borders on the psychopathic. He cruelly injures a cat, steals thing just to destroy them later, and just generally seems like a social deviant in the making.
But then he’ll make a decision in a moment of tenderness that seems utterly incongruous with his earlier actions: buying a gift for his foster mother, tending to the animal he injured, gently showing affection for those around him.
The contradictions aren’t pronounced in L’enfance Nue; they’re simply come along with the territory that Pialat is examining. Is the behavior a result of some innate depravity? Thoughtless and selfish foster parents? The entire culture of adoption and the foster environment?
It could be all of them or none of them. The boy, François (Michel Terrazon), conducts himself in such an aloof manner that it hardly seems possible to feel any sympathy at all, until Pialat reminds us of the cruel system he’s unwittingly become a part of — in one scene, prospective foster parents choose an adoptee like he’s some kind of accessory.
That the film doesn’t go to great lengths to convince the viewer one way or the other is one of its strengths — the resulting film is often uncomfortably austere in its emotional distance from the subject matter, but it also renders François’s trials in a real world environment where cause-and-effect is rarely obvious, and certainly not on anyone’s mind in the heat of the moment. The film’s episodic structure, with little transition between scenes and incidents, further strips away any sense of why François makes the decisions he does.
Terrazon, a non-actor performing in his only film role ever, has a kind of marvelous blank slate persona that the viewer can alternately imbue with a misguided impressionability or a sinister mischievousness. His first family assumes the latter, while his second is more of the opinion of the former, but either way, his behavior is just as rash and unpredictable.
Pialat’s direction results in a film with a natural, rough-hewn quality to it. It’s shot like a documentary much of the time, but the editing is deliberately odd enough to shake up any natural rhythm and place the viewer squarely in the middle of what is happening.
The Criterion Collection DVD (L’enfance Nue is likely one of the last Criterion mainline releases to not get a Blu-ray edition) presents a fairly well rounded selection of special features to accompany the film, including Pialat’s first film ever, the short L’amour Existe, which explores the distinctions between economic classes in Paris.
Also included are an hour-long documentary on the making of the film, as well as a look into the foster child system, excerpts from a 1973 interview with Pialat, and interviews with collaborators Arlette Langmann and Patrick Grandperret. A visual essay by Kent Jones on Pialat’s style is an excellent piece to help understand the reasoning behind Pialat’s method of eliminating set-up and establishing shots. The set also includes a booklet with an essay by critic Phillip Lopate.