Produced in France in 1968, Maurice Pialat’s debut feature, L’Enfance Nue (“Naked Childhood”), looks like nothing that was coming out of the country at the time—it jibes neither with the “tradition of quality” films nor with the New Wavers rebelling against the old guard. (With Claude Berri and François Truffaut credited as producers, the film seems to have a foot in both doors.) It has the working-class pallor of a British kitchen-sink melodrama, but it’s also subtly radical, revealing the world of a damaged, wayward foster child through jagged scenes of darkness and light. Pialat deals with the foster-care system with a sympathy that never crosses over into sentimentality, and a clear-eyed sense of the problems and limits of rehabilitating troubled children, who remain volatile under the best circumstances. It’s heartbreaking, but gratifyingly incomplete and untidy, wearing its roughhewn realism as a badge of honor, even if it means frustrating the audience’s expectations.
Set against a humble suburban backdrop that’s plainly, beautifully evoked, L’Enfance Nue picks up on its 10-year-old subject, played by Michel Terrazon, in the middle of a foster arrangement gone sour. Kicked around the system since his mother cut him loose, Terrazon lives with well-meaning guardians, but they can no longer abide his violent, erratic behavior or his petty criminality, and the effect these things are having on their daughter. So Social Services puts him under the care of a kind, elderly couple (Marie-Louise Thierry and René Thierry)—he calls them “Grandma” and “Grandpa”—who are also looking after another difficult foster child (Henri Puff) and Grandma’s mostly bedridden mother. They all come to feel deep affection for one another, but that doesn’t necessarily dictate a change in Terrazon’s ways.
Pialat commits himself so thoroughly to realism, from the awkward cadences of his nonprofessional actors to the almost institutional quality of foster homes, that the film’s experimental qualities come as a surprise. L’Enfance Nue unfolds in ellipses: In one scene, Terrazon’s “Grandpa” physically punishes him for kicking a hole in his bedroom door; in the next, they’re happily working together to fix it. Where most movies would bridge those scenes with a little reconciliation, Pialat’s links them together as a suggestion of how kids who act out are still kids, capable of responding well to their parents one day, and getting into trouble the next. At one point, “Grandma” reacts to news of the boy’s latest act of violence by insisting, over and over again, that he has “a good heart.” Pialat understands that in some situations, having a good heart doesn’t guarantee salvation.
Key features: Pialat’s 1960 short about the Paris suburbs, “L’amour Existe,” shows his style and concerns carved out well before L’Enfance Nue. It’s joined by a fine collection of supplements that include a 50-minute French documentary about the film, a prickly TV interview with Pialat, 2003 video interviews with screenwriter Arlette Langmann and assistant director Patrick Grandperret, and, most compellingly, a visual essay by critic Kent Jones, who has great insight into Pialat’s unique sensibility.