L'Enfance nue Review
Coming late to filmmaking at the age of 43 after giving up on his ambitions to be a painter and then an actor, Maurice Pialat nonetheless immediately staked out a unique position in French cinema with his debut feature L’Enfance Nue in 1968. In contrast to the traditional popular cinéma du papa and even the format-breaking stylisations of the nouvelle vague directors, Pialat, particularly in his first three features - L’Enfance Nue (68), Nous ne vieillirons pas ensemble (72), La gueule ouverte (74) – as well as in the 6-hour television serial La Maison des Bois (71), would bring a sense of emotional realism to the screen in a much more hard-hitting and naturalistic manner than audiences would have been accustomed to see. Taking social and autobiographical material, covering aspects of childhood, family life, relationships and death as it affects ordinary people, working naturalistically with non-professional actors, holding and extending scenes often into improvisation, Pialat’s revolutionary cinema would break boundaries and make an indelible mark on French cinema.
The contrast is particularly evident if one compares Pialat’s 1968 treatment of wayward youth in L’Enfance nue with Truffaut’s groundbreaking 400 Blows made almost a decade earlier (and indeed Truffaut was one of the producers here on Pialat’s debut alongside Claude Berri). Looking not unlike Jean-Pierre Léaud, Michel Tarrazon’s young 10 year-old tearaway François could very well be an alternative continuation of the story of Truffaut’s runaway Antoine Doinel, but the treatment from Maurice Pialat is notably more harshly realist and less inclined to appeal to the viewer’s sympathy through conventional means. Abandoned by his parents, François is passed from one foster family to another, each of them finding it impossible to control a young boy who gets into a lot of trouble torturing cats, stealing, getting into fights and going to school wielding a large knife. Although he is given love and affection by the poor families who take him in for the little extra money they will receive, he inevitably never feels like he belongs and ends up turning against the people who want to help him.
The viewer is consequently appalled by the behaviour of François and his apparent ingratitude towards the foster parents who take him into their homes and try everything to make him feel a part of their families. Pialat however avoids depicting the situation in easy black-and-white terms, making the viewer aware of the monetary benefits, not insubstantial, that the families receive for the service, yet showing the efforts that are made by the Social Services (L’Assistance Publique) and the love and care that is given by the parents - genuine people speaking their own words, not professional actors reading a script - who give these unwanted children a home. Most importantly however Pialat indirectly through the most natural of expressions, gestures and situations makes the viewer aware of the underlying reasons behind the behavioural problems often found in these children. Indeed, it’s that sense of being "unwanted" by their own parents that creates a sense of confusion and incomprehension in the child, and the only conclusion that François can come to is that he is indeed bad and unlovable, causing him to mistrust and lash out at those around him. Some of the parents understand where this anger and self-hatred comes from, but that doesn’t mean that they can easily put up with the problems that inevitably ensue.
The circumstances of abandoned children had been thoroughly and carefully researched by Pialat before shooting, but there are clearly strongly autobiographical elements that give L'Enfance nue a more bitter edge. Although Pialat wasn't placed in the hands of the social services he was brought up by his grandparents and did feel abandoned by his parents, and this sense of personal investment in the characters and their circumstances, if not actual anger and sense of outrage for the fates of these abandoned children, is felt viscerally in the film. The strength of the subject is underscored by the setting, Pialat depicting the social circumstances of the period and the poverty of the outlying suburban districts (already the subject of the director’s 1961 short film L'Amour Existe, also included on this DVD set), with a sense of authenticity and familiarity clearly coming from personal experience.
Although the sense of documentary-like realism achieved by the use of non-professional actors is, to say the least, impressive not only in a film of this vintage but even by modern-day standards, Pialat nevertheless was less than happy with L’Enfance nue, finding himself on his first film constrained by other aspects of the production, financing and the filmmaking process itself, and not liking at all having to concede authority to others with more experience in the business than himself. Pialat would attempt to correct these "flaws" that he consequently saw in his debut with his subsequent television serial La Maison des Bois. Working with a less experienced crew, having seven episodes and six hours to explore the nature of childhood and the impact on children abandoned by parents who have been caught up in the 1914-18 war (the young Michel Tarrazon is one of several familiar faces carried over from Pialat’s debut feature), Pialat had an unprecedented freedom to do there everything he wanted, making La Maison des Bois a unique experience that breaks new ground as far as TV serials are concerned. To the ordinary viewer however, oblivious to the personal issues the director had with the film and whether or not it was a commercial success, L’Enfance nue remains nothing less than a masterpiece and its achievement is still unsurpassed.
L’Enfance nue is released in the UK by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema collection. A 2-disc set, both the film and the substantial extra features are spread across two dual-layer discs. A port of the French set from Gaumont, but with the addition of English subtitles, the transfer is consequently in PAL format. The disc is region-free.
Like all the Pialat films on DVD, L’Enfance nue has been restored from the best elements available, and it looks amazing. Colour levels are superb with detailed and accurate tones and there isn’t a mark discernable on the print. The image tends towards soft and there is certainly grain evident, but in both cases this is no more than you would expect of the film and it’s much more realistic and preferable to an overly-processed transfer. If examined closely, faint compression artefacts can be seen in backgrounds, particularly when there is panning of the camera, and there is some cross-colouration, but this is not pronounced. The same issues are evident in the French release to which this transfer (barring the menus and the absence of subtitles) is identical in every respect.
The audio track is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 and is also excellent, the tone and clarity perfect for the purposes of the film and about as accurate to the original as it is possible to achieve. There are no noticeable issues anywhere.
English subtitles are provided in a clear white font and are optional. The translation is good, finding good English equivalents for the slang and idiom that is appropriate to the age of the film.
Interview with Arlette Langmann and Patrick Grandperret (6:24)
Two of Pialat’s collaborators talk about where the director’s interest in the subject came from and his approach to scripting and shooting the film.
Short Film: L’amour existe (19:03)
Pialat’s first film, a short documentary feature from 1960, anticipates themes not only in L’Enfance nue but also in La gueule ouverte. An examination of the poverty and deprivation in the post-war suburbs of Paris, Pialat shows his interest in little people with their basic needs and lifestyles, at the same time capturing the almost surreal quality of life in the margins of society. His consideration of the impact on children growing up in this concrete landscape is relevant as a historical and social document on the problems that have subsequently grown out of the banlieues. The transfer of the film, non-anamorphic but letterboxed, is excellent.
Original Trailer (2:12)
The original trailer is presented anamorphically at its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio. A great trailer, it leaves you in no doubt about the film’s content and its raw examination of a difficult childhood.
Observations: On L’Enfance nue (50:23)
Informative, deeply interesting and highly relevant, this documentary, made soon after the film’s release, sees Pialat revisit the locations and meet some of the cast members. Through interviews with the director, the actors and real-life cases of fostered children including the real-life boy who inspired François, as well as their carers and expert psychologists, it looks in depth at the subject of L’Enfance nue and attests to the authenticity of the film.
Interview with Maurice Pialat (32:16)
Interviews with Maurice Pialat tend to be both fascinating and embarrassing, and this awkward early interview for a French TV showing of the film in 1973 has to be seen to be believed. Irascible, temperamental, inconsistent, contradictory, Pialat’s views are nevertheless of great interest particularly when, as is often the case, he is disparaging and brutally honest about his own work. Although he tends to ramble inconsequentially off the questions, (which are less questions than off-the-cuff statements), Pialat nonetheless has provocative thoughts to offer about the reasons for the film’s "failure" on an artistic and commercial level, on whether or not it is a "social film" and his condemnation of French cinema in general. Compelling viewing.
On The Trail of Michel Tarrazon (9:43)
Now an optician, Tarrazon reflects on being a child movie star and gives his recollections of working with Pialat, often without a fixed script, both on L’Enfance nue and La Maison des Bois.
Trailers are included for other Pialat films due to be released at a future date by Masters of Cinema (all unmissable, so start saving now). These include: Nous ne vieillirons pas ensemble (3:42), La gueule ouverte (2:50), Passe ton Bac d’abord (2:15), A nos amours (1:24), Police (2:21) and Sous le soleil de Satan (3:24).
Also included is an exclusive 40-page booklet that contains an insightful essay on the film by Kent Jones, a 1972 interview with Pialat where the interviewer attempt to pin down his style in relation to neorealism, cinema vérité and other "realistic" or improvisational ways of making film, and an excerpt from a 1973 interview with the director which goes right back to his earliest works and investigates how he arrived at his filmmaking style.
Made in 1968, L’Enfance nue is an extraordinary debut, quite unlike anything else in French cinema up to that point, and really there hasn’t even been a French director since who has had the courage or the ability to approach what Maurice Pialat achieves at his very best here and in his subsequent two features, Nous ne vieillirons pas ensemble and La gueule ouverte. Porting over the entire contents of the superlative French 2-disc DVD edition, but providing excellent subtitles where there are none on the Gaumont set, and supplementing this with an essential fully-illustrated booklet, the Masters of Cinema release of L’Enfance nue is simply one of the best DVD releases of the year. Considering that most of the other Gaumont French releases are also similarly well supported with archive features and new interviews, the promise of more fully-subtitled Pialat releases from Masters of Cinema is truly a cause for celebration.