Review by Ben Ewing
Posted on 17 March 2010
Source Masters of Cinema DVD
Critical discourse on Maurice Pialat’s L’Enfance-nue could do worse than building on the obvious. Though the film immediately calls to mind François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, it is, upon closer inspection, only a superficial ally, if not an outright opponent. Sure, both films realistically depict the hijinks and domestic displacement of a fresh-faced but antisocial preadolescent boy, and both were prize-winning debuts for their auteurist French directors. True, Pialat’s child actor bears a striking resemblance to the young Jean-Pierre Léaud (Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel in The 400 Blows) and takes his onscreen first name from Truffaut, whose full name (as co-producer) happens to be the first to appear in the title credits that begin L’Enfance-nue. But from just a few minutes into their respective first films, the tonal difference between Pialat and Truffaut is striking. Whereas Truffaut’s tender realism (or tempered romanticism) leads viewers to great empathy for the good-hearted but misunderstood Antoine, Pialat’s flat depictions of brutality with scant moralization or psychological explanation leave his young foster-care hot potato François an enigma—one who thwarts empathy as much as reductionist interpretation.
Yet if Truffaut and The 400 Blows are the easy reference points, two others do more to help us understand Pialat and his first film (which lacks an arc of narrative progress to which to cling): the Italian Neo-Realists’ (particularly Vittorio De Sica’s) could-be-pristine children whom society is coarsening, and, alternatively, Michael Haneke’s icily unsympathetic youths and their latent violence in The White Ribbon.
Much more so than Truffaut’s young Antoine Doinel, De Sica’s pathetic children illuminate—by presenting an extreme contrast with—Pialat’s inaccessible young lead François, from whom the viewer is likely to feel alienated. The Children Are Watching Us could stand not just as one of De Sica’s more moving films but also a slogan for a quintessential Neo-Realist tactic: using the innocent gaze of children as a counterpoint against which to spotlight the harshness of the adult capitalist world. In films such as The Children Are Watching Us and Shoeshine, kids begin wide-eyed and innocent, only to be driven to sadness and rebellion by the material and familial strains of economically depressed urban modernity. It is clear how and why these children stray from purity even before the full fruition of their flights. Economic and related social stresses lead to psychological ruptures that are the proximate causes when children act out. Indeed De Sica’s tragedies feel teleological. They point ever downward toward sorrow.
By contrast, the films of Pialat, the least sentimental or didactic of directors, offer neither romanticizing nor universalizing explanations for human viciousness, and no exception is granted when those misbehaving are children. If Italian Neo-Realist protagonists are tabula rasas ever dirtied by harsh social realities, Pialat’s protagonists (perhaps none more so than François) are fixtures of autonomous individuality. They live among other people, but their strong wills are largely unbent by social winds.
François may be an orphan who bounces among foster families but L’Enfance-nue doesn’t show us directly how familial instability weighs on or drives him—much less how abuse, neglect or abandonment by his biological parents may have instigated his rebellion. Rather than juxtaposing François’s petty thievery and wanton violence against an uncaring or mean-spirited system of foster care, Pialat placed him amid adult supervisors who seem mostly well-intentioned, if exasperated by François’s behavior. François gives another foster child the unlikely line that his father is a hunter in Africa, and we learn second-hand that his mother gave him up as a toddler, but ultimately the film offers few reasons, much less emotional pleas, to excuse François when he steals, fights with other children, knocks his plate off the dinner table, or throws railway bars from an overpass, causing a serious car accident.
That is not to say, though, that François is depicted as merely an isolated sociopath. Indeed he behaves most egregiously—dropping a cat down the center of a many-story spiral staircase and hitting a car with a brick of iron—with small gangs of co-offenders. Even the relatively well-behaved children in the film are hardly innocent. The first line of dialogue addressed at François comes from a cute little girl who tells him he is ugly. And the older boy at his last foster home may be straighter-laced than François but he is not above fighting with him, when, literally, push comes to shove. Granted, Pialat wasn’t addressing a random sample of children. It hardly needs explaining that the displacement of a foster-care childhood is less-than-optimal socialization. But the overwhelming impression here is a near reversal of the Italian Neo-Realists’ pathetic children trope: here it is the adults who are awed and saddened by what they witness, struggling in vain to contain the angst and cruelty the children bring to world.
However, unlike the Neo-Realists (who sought to explain adult callousness somewhat didactically in terms of struggle over material resources), Pialat withheld sentimentality and sociological explanation from his portrait of François, and foster-care youth more broadly. He did so as much through his style of assembling and framing images as through the dialogue and behavior he captured on film. Like Haneke (who called Pialat’s The Mouth Agape a favorite in a recent interview with Anthony Lane for The New Yorker, and whose recent film The White Ribbon even more starkly suggests that inexplicable devils lie within children), Pialat created moods of severity and anticipated violence by meticulously eschewing the go-to tandem devices of melodramatic and overtly manipulative cinema: music and montage.
As does Haneke, Pialat continually displayed a marked aversion to non-diegetic music, and L’Enfance-nue is his first full example of this tendency. If memory serves me well the film contains just two scenes with music, and in both cases the music is not just diegetic but seemingly incidental, present perhaps primarily to remind the viewer of music’s overwhelming absence from the other 80 minutes. Paralleling the lack of narrative guidance typically supplied by expressive music is the absence of suggestive intercutting. At times one wonders whether the word “montage” was in Pialat’s vocabulary, for even shot-reverse-shot dialogue is alien to L’Enfance-nue. Here, Pialat adhered to an almost theatrical preservation of continuous space, and like The White Ribbon, L’Enfance-nue appears to unfold scene to scene more than cut to cut. Broadly speaking, the two films share a distinctive approach to sound and the sequence of images that thwarts viewers in their attempts to explain children’s acts of savagery.
And yet if The White Ribbon employs stylistic devices from the core of Pialat’s cinema, Haneke remains a fundamentally different director, as revealing a foil to Pialat as he is a kindred spirit. Whereas Haneke directs passive-aggressive drama, creating and suspending tension through abject refusals to resolve narrative tension, Pialat offered a vision equally stark, but flatter—one in which severity is less an entertainment strategy than a documentarian-like aspiration to objectivity. If Haneke’s unwillingness to reveal the truth behind his far-flung mysteries sends us home talking about narrative closure and its absence, Pialat’s more fundamental resistance to explanation leaves us troubled at a deeper level, and thinking less about cinematic style than what to make of the unfiltered, complex people he has depicted so vividly: people neither the viewer nor Pialat himself has reduced by “understanding.”