In the much-revered canon of coming-of-age films, Maurice Pialat’s L’enfance nue (Naked Childhood) takes a fascinating place among its contemporaries. Unlike many cinematic works made about the topic, Pialat’s debut film doesn’t wax lyrical about childhood nostalgia and absolutely refuses sentimentalism and aesthetic lyricism common to portraits of youth. Even music is strictly kept to a minimum, save for a few diegetic sounds that occur in the background. Naturalism is Pialat’s weapon of choice here, and his raw, unadorned depiction of troubled adolescence can be clearly felt throughout as though any sign of sugarcoated kitsch in both frame and narrative would be the film’s undoing. Placed next to François Truffaut’s seminal and extraordinary Les Quatre Cents Coups (The 400 Blows), a film that shares L’enfance nue‘s themes of broken childhood and youthful delinquency, Pialat’s work looks rigid, rigorous and unaffected whereas Truffaut’s seems flamboyant and wistful in nature. The latter produced Pialat’s picture, and it’s not difficult to see Truffaut’s attraction to the material – it’s a devastating account of a ten-year old foster child François whose fate isn’t worlds away from that of Antoine Doinel.
What’s more intriguing is that the boy François is given much more complexity than your average hellraiser (thanks to an astonishingly accurate performance by Michel Terrazon). François’ temperamental, bellicose actions belie the mere youthful rebel – he throws a cat down a flight of stairs from a top-floor, picks up fights, kicks down a door, hurls a knife at his adopted brother and the most socially destructive of them all, chucks heavy rail bolts down a motorway, leading to a car crash and his subsequent confinement to a juvenile home – and yet his psychosis doesn’t remain clear-cut. Abandoned as a child by his biological mother, François has been moving from one pair of foster parents to the next. For one, there’s a lack of home, that permanent place of comfort. And then there’s that crushing early abandonment that leaves lasting scars to any child. But François is not painted as a full-blown rotten little shit – he’s both cruel and kind, recalcitrant and obedient, tender and aversive. His erratic rebelliousness seems to stem from peer pressure and the sense of temporary state of affairs – where the child believes his actions truly doesn’t matter because he’ll end up being moved to another place at the end of the day, having done either good or bad deeds.
Yet he’s surrounded by people who aren’t really horrible to him. Where a lazy treatment of this film would quickly point fingers, Pialat avoids holding judgement and matter-of-factly provides humanity to many of his characters, including the first foster mother who is clearly tired, dissatisfied and yet disappointed to see François go and his new;y adopted family headed by a doting, elderly couple (real-life foster parents) who both shows genuine affection and sympathy to the complicated child. Pialat seems to portray a broader scope of the foster care system, where good intentions give way to an almost mechanical process of moving orphaned or abandoned children as if they were damaged goods on a conveyor belt. And François is only one case scenario of a bigger reality. L’enfance nue doesn’t even pretend to have answers or alternative ideas of the adoption process – and we are denied of a conclusion whether the main protagonist finds redemption or not. Illustrated in François’ letter at the film’s closing scene, sometimes in life all we can do is hope for the best.