‘L’Enfance Nue’ Forces a Frighteningly Unmoored, Unlikeable Child Into Our Lives

Maurice Pialat is one of those highly divisive art house filmmakers who inspires fiercely irreconcilable opinions in his viewers. This is, after all, an artist who is known to have aimed to make his audiences feel uncomfortable. His vision is clear and unyielding, and his subjects tend to be hard and unsympathetic. To watch Pialat is to be taken to places one doesn’t usually want to go. However, if you stick around for the harrowing ride, there is reward. You’re going to have to trust me.

His first film, 1968’s L’Enfance Nue [Naked Childhood], was bankrolled by Francois Truffaut, and shares many of its themes with its benefactor’s masterpiece The 400 Blows. A story about lost youth, about a young boy who struggles to find comfort, love, and a sense of purpose, amid the tedium of a working class life, L’Enfance Nue is reminiscent of this earlier work, but only to a point. Whereas Truffaut’s hero Antoine is ultimately sympathetic and, to a point, charming, Pialat’s hero Francois is a cruel, dangerously violent, and frighteningly unmoored child. With Truffaut, we could be carried away by occasional touches of sentimentalism or humour; with Pialat we are stuck with steely-eyed visions of violence, darkness, and loss.

We first meet Francois – an orphan – with a young foster family who neglect him in favour of their own biological daughter. Before long, this couple becomes fed up with his stealing, his cruelty, and his incorrigibility, and they make their case, at length, to the Director of the foster program that they need to be rid of him. In the hands of another filmmaker, we might judge this to be unfair, or even cruel, but we have just witnessed Francois throw a cat down five flights of stairs to its death. We can’t help but agree that this child is a danger to those around him. Herein lies the trick of the film: we don’t like this kid, either. We need to face the fact that we wouldn’t likely want to help him overcome his difficulties. We would send him away, too. How do we feel about that?

His next family is an aging couple, calm and serene and doting in their affection but capable of firmness when pushed. Of course, in this new environment Francois continues his old ways, though the elderly caregivers appear to be better prepared for what they have got in this wild young man. In one instructive scene they offer him cake after scolding him. In another they beat him with a wet rag until he submits. All the while, Francois appears bound for a bad end, and the horror of the film lies in our unswerving sense of impending disaster. Slow and dull as much of the film can feel, this creeping fate pulls us toward the conclusion with compelling force.

When the tragedy finally occurs, Pialat lets it hit with the same force as any other of the mundane events he has catalogued in the film. The fly-on-the-wall, almost vérité, approach leaves the violence all the more awful, reminding us of the suddenness of life-shattering events. It’s not a lot of fun, but this is a journey worth taking for anyone interested in the psychology of childhood, the meaning of family, and the struggle for self-realization.

This Criterion edition boasts a a number of special features including an illuminating essay by critic Phillip Lopate, excerpts from a 1973 interview with Pialat, a short early film from the director, and an hour-long doc on the making of the film. All in all, typically outstanding extras from Criterion.

RATING 7 / 10