Maurice Pialat was in his 40s when he shot L’Enfance Nue, having spent years as a painter, actor, and traveling salesman. It’s important to stress the range of life experience he carried with him when he made his 1968 feature debut, for this is a study of youth unmistakably marked by the heft of age. The 10-year-old protagonist, François (Michel Terrazon), is first seen at a family outing, during which he filches a wristwatch that he later destroys. A scene or two passes and he’s throwing his sister’s cat down a stairwell, only to then try to nurse it back to health. Clearly, this is the volatile childhood that Rousseau once described as “the sleep of reason,” a time when vulnerability, cruelty, fear, and mischief mingle and flare without explaining or excusing themselves.
François’s aggressive tantrums and hunger for affection bewilder the adults around him: Abandoned by his mother, he finds himself stuck in a revolving door of adopted homes, with more than one foster family having given up on the troubled kid. The bulk of Pialat’s patiently observational film takes place in his latest home, under the care of a kindly elderly couple (Marie-Louise Thierry, René Thierry). The interlude provides François with a modicum of happiness and stability, but as the film suggests, it’s but one stopover in a young life already riddled with disintegration.
A magnificently unsentimental entry in French cinema’s prodigious catalogue of chronicles of wayward youngsters, L’Enfance Nue is routinely compared with The 400 Blows. Where François Truffaut was lyrically, almost subjectively attuned to his pubescent stand-in’s secluded world, however, Pialat—no less emotionally invested in his protagonist’s joys and pangs—keeps his camera at a distance, as interested in the boy’s sensitivity and delinquency as in the adult characters’ reaction to them. This distance, along with Pialat’s often deliberately brusque editing (scenes of harrowing squabbles segue into moments of fond connection, with no indication of how much time has passed between them), attests not just to the director’s belief in emotional truth over facile charm, but also to his respect for the utter unknowability of human behavior.
Filled with rigorous yet warmly detailed compositions worthy of Chardin, the film is remarkable for its vivid, uncondescending snapshots of working-class life and, in its loving observation of Marie-Louise and René Thierry (real-life foster parents more or less playing themselves), the fullest portrait of an elderly couple since McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow. As emotionally naked as its title implies, Pialat’s piercing first feature introduces the mix of laceration and delicacy that would haunt such unruly children as Sandrine Bonnaire’s promiscuous teenager in A Nous Amours, Jacques Dutronc’s anguished painter in Van Gogh, and, by all accounts, the notoriously stormy auteur himself.
As befits Maurice Pialat's painterly background as well as his insistence on rough-hewn immediacy, the 1.66:1 anamorphic transfer is both rich and gritty, with some particularly sensitive interiors. The sound is clear and spare, with just a wedding sing-along putting its range to the test.
Pialat deservedly receives the lion's share of attention in the disc's generous array of supplements, starting with "Autour de L'Enfance Nue," a 1969 documentary which combines behind-the-scenes footage of cast and crew (including especially rewarding interviews with the Thierrys) with reportage on the state of France's foster care system. Pialat's 20-minute 1960 short L'Amour Existe showcases his tenderness and combative humanism, qualities also in display in a 1973 interview that finds the filmmaker in a somewhat masochistic mood (commenting on his first film's commercial failure, he notes that, as an audience member, he wouldn't want to watch it, either). Video interviews with Pialat collaborators Arlette Langmann and Patrick Grandperret (shot around his death in 2003), a valuable video thesis by Kent Jones, and a booklet with Phillip Lopate's essay round off the extras, which are only missing a whatever-happened-to? featurette on young star Michel Terrazon.
A magnificently unsentimental entry in French cinema's prodigious catalog of chronicles of wayward youngsters, Maurice Pialat's piercing first feature introduces the Gallic master's mix of laceration and delicacy.