In his defiantly maverick directing career, which yielded only ten features in thirty-five years, Maurice Pialat (1925–2003) was a stimulant and irritant, agitating the cozy pool of French cinema. His first effort, the lyrically bitter short essay film L’amour existe (1960), about the suburbs, won a prize at the Venice Film Festival and the admiration of François Truffaut, who offered to help produce his first feature. No doubt Truffaut was also attracted by the subject matter of Pialat’s proposed project: a boy abandoned by his mother who is shunted from one foster home to another. But the result was no knockoff of The 400 Blows; if anything, it reversed the experience of that beloved predecessor, in that Pialat made difficult any sentimental identification with the boy, made it equally hard to indict or applaud the adults, and forced the audience to revise its judgment with each scene.
In retrospect, L’enfance nue (1968) seems one of the most remarkably self-contained and obdurate debuts in cinema history. By his own admission, the director, no youngster at the time but already forty-four, had sought with this first feature to make an “uncomfortable” film for audiences. Although it was hailed by critics, it was not exactly a crowd-pleaser, and Pialat vowed to correct his ways and please audiences more in the future; yet such was his character that he went on to create one gloriously uncomfortable film after another. These include the astringent The Mouth Agape (1974; a mother lies dying with cancer while her son seeks erotic release), the explosive À nos amours (1983; a promiscuous teenage girl in a ruptured family), the antiheroic epic Van Gogh (1991; the artist seen as crabby moocher), and his final work, Le garçu (1995; a devastating study of arrested male development). When his eighth feature, an austere drama involving religion, Under the Sun of Satan (1987), was announced as the winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes and drew catcalls from the audience, Pialat showed his contempt for their opinion by making the classic fuck-you gesture. The confrontational relationship that existed between this famously difficult, temperamental auteur and the French public ought not to be misconstrued as arising from misanthropy on Pialat’s part. He was a complicated humanist whose sympathies for his characters ran so deep that he felt no obligation to sugarcoat their flaws.
In the case of François, the ten-year-old protagonist of L’enfance nue, we may at first want to give him a hug, but before twenty minutes have elapsed, he has thrown a cat over a banister (a deal breaker, understandably, for many viewers), stolen a watch and smashed it, and gotten into fights with classmates, among other acts of mischief. Our inclination then switches to wanting to see him as a Bad Seed, to wash our hands of him; but he contradicts this picture with certain tender actions, such as caring for the cat he has injured and buying a gift for the pretty foster mother who has just decided she’s had enough and he must go. Other factors complicate our judgment as well: for instance, the young foster mother, pouring out her grievances to the social worker (first he peed in the bed, now he pees around the bed; he doesn’t eat; he steals things; etc.), complains that there is something fundamentally nasty about François, the way he stares at their daughter when they give her a bath. The social worker, wearily resigned to having to place the boy in a new home, nevertheless can’t resist saying, “You didn’t have to bathe Josette in front of him.”
Later, when he is transferred to the home of a kindly elderly couple, who are also foster parenting another boy, the adolescent Raoul, and caring for a bedridden grandmother, we see François often (if not always) responding positively to their more benign treatment. He becomes especially fond of the grandmother, who seems able to engage him without cornering him or extracting ritual expressions of affection that are beyond his reserved temperament.
A word should be said about the uncanny performance of Michel Terrazon as the boy. Though Pialat almost entirely cast nonprofessionals in this film, he did not always ask them to play who they were in real life, as he did the elderly couple, the Thierrys. The ten-year-old Terrazon was not abandoned but a child from a stable family who was called upon to act. His François displays a sly, sneaky manner, a wary little half smile, and a tendency to hide in the background—except when he is openly demanding attention with mischief or destructive tantrums. He is filmed almost always in medium or long shot, in any case, without the soulful treatment Truffaut lavished on Jean-Pierre Léaud. François often remains silent, even when questioned directly by adults. Years later, Terrazon reported that Pialat did not write specific dialogue for the cast but gave them summaries and expected them to come up with their own lines. The young performer’s inability to think of what to say perfectly jibed with the character he was playing; such a taciturn boy would likely have little idea why he was acting out the way he was. Most children cannot give an articulate account of their behavior, and this laconic position would be particularly true for a child whose attachment to his mother has been shattered, and with it his sense of personal security. Beyond that, François knows full well that he can be kicked out of a foster home in an instant if he says or does the wrong thing.
The film is thus deeply concerned with psychological behavior but not with psychological explanation. The audience is called upon to observe this child whose inner life we can only speculate on, and who therefore remains a mystery. That sense of mystery is deepened by Pialat’s quirky filmic technique: scenes begin and end abruptly, with no preparation or emotional orientation, no musical score to tell us how to feel, no cues as to how many hours, days, or months have gone by since the last scene. In short, the viewer is kept off balance, and has to attend to the experience in the moment. Pialat’s patient, immersive approach has been accurately compared to the documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman’s, and there are many passages in this film that strike a documentary chord, notably, the opening scene of the political demonstration, which would seem to be preparing us for a liberal-left indictment of the French social services. In fact, the purpose of this demo footage is more to give us a social-class context than a political message: to tell us we are about to enter a working-class or lower-middle-class milieu, where economic need may play a role in the decision to foster a child. Even though the first foster mother hotly denies this, saying, “It’s not like we’re in it for the 220 francs a month,” the fact remains that these families are not comfortably bourgeois. Pialat clearly sympathizes with their straitened economic circumstances, and his attentiveness to the worn, dowdy interiors of the two foster homes, with their proud little heirlooms, tells us a great deal about the families’ struggle to hold their head above water. (Later in his career, Pialat, who started out as a painter, would put forth a more polished compositional style, in such films as À nos amours and Van Gogh. But his first film disdained the elegantly pictorial and veered toward a plainer, more deadpan—if just as visually rigorous—depiction of domestic environments.)
The director explicitly denied that his intent was to make a “social film,” and in fact identified himself as a man of the right, thereby distancing himself the more from politically committed, engagé filmmaking. Yet the extensive preliminary research that Pialat undertook about adopted children and the French social services suggests a more complicated stance. Some of this research made it directly into the film, like the rather Wiseman-like intake scene at the adoption center, where we see the attempt to match orphan with picky prospective parent (“I hope it’s not another black child. I don’t want one of those.” “You won’t be disappointed. He’s a sweetie.”). In this scene, which straddles the two foster home narratives, our protagonist, François, makes no appearance, nor does he in a later scene where his foster brother Raoul is upbraided for breaking the rules, which suggests that Pialat may have wanted to show us the broader problem of temporary adoption, above and beyond the plight of this particular boy: that abandoned children brought up in successive foster homes may indeed be prone to aggressive or troubled behavior, and that foster parents may approach the task from an unrealistic, consumerist perspective, expecting to find compensation for all their prior sadness. My own suspicion is that Pialat was conflicted, one part of him indeed wanting to address this broad social problem and another, proudly artistic side of him fighting that generalizing, do-gooder impulse with idiosyncratic details that extenuate and discomfit.
Pialat preferred confessing to a personal, egotistical motive for making the picture: though he was not an orphan himself, having been raised by his biological parents, he nevertheless felt he had been emotionally abandoned by them along the way and that his childhood had been a miserable one. The film’s forlorn undertone may well stem from this wound. But just as we think that we are heading into tragedy (the meanness of small-town life bearing down on a troubled child), the film catches its breath with the wedding scene, a working-class documentary passage in which everyone rocks back and forth, singing “The Blue Java.” This is a relaxed tableau, and François is shown enjoying it like everyone else, a minor character responding “normally.” At every point, we are presented with conflicting evidence that makes it impossible to decide whether François is essentially a decent kid or a hopeless cause. He does get into fights but is provoked by his classmates. Even in the episode where he drops the cat, he is shown surrounded by other boys, who are no less sadistically curious, and his throwing of rail spikes at passing cars has serious consequences, but again, there are other boys with him doing the same. Should we write off François as pathologically damaged or indulgently argue that boys will be boys and his only mistake was getting caught? Perhaps neither. All we know is that, by the film’s end, he is neither redeemed nor irredeemable. Pialat later reproached himself for not having the guts to go all the way and show the boy hanging himself with a dog lead, as one of the boys he had met during his research had done. But that would have been a different film—specifically, Bresson’s Mouchette (which happens to have been made in 1967, at the same time Pialat was shooting L’enfance nue)—and suicide for François would have offered redemption from his troubles, too false a resolution.
That peculiar obstinate realism of Pialat’s, that balance between absence of solace and refusal of pessimistic bleakness, is part of what makes him such a revered figure among the many younger French filmmakers he has inspired, such as Catherine Breillat, Olivier Assayas, Erick Zonca, Bruno Dumont, and Gaspar Noé. Kent Jones has ably defined this quality, “what gives Pialat’s best work its existential pull.” As he writes, “There is so little evidence of aesthetic attitudinizing or strategizing that we become genuinely attuned to the film as a series of precious moments.” In his fascinated attention to the moment, free of narrative agendas, Pialat played a key role in that global shift in cinematic emphasis that can also be seen in the work of John Cassavetes, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Abbas Kiarostami, and Jia Zhangke. Still, Pialat never really made it big in the United States, partly because he was a member of that excellent, scandalously underrecognized generation of filmmakers who came just after the New Wave—including Philippe Garrel, Jacques Doillon, Jean Eustache, and Luc Moullet—partly because the American moviegoing public showed a diminished appetite for foreign films in general in that period, and partly because his pictures never offered a scintilla of feel-good Gallic charm.
All of Maurice Pialat’s moral vision was there from the beginning, in L’enfance nue: he could not bring himself to believe in the redemptive promise of enlightened values or love, and he seemed bravely impervious to the delusion of comfort. Yet the sweetness of the scene where the elderly Mémère sits on her husband’s knee and tells her two foster boys, all ears, about their courtship leaves an afterglow that cannot be easily forgotten. Stubborn in depicting how precarious and disappointing relationships often are, Pialat was equally insistent on listening to the testimony and experience of those very different from himself, those not as tortured by a fear of abandonment.
Phillip Lopate’s most recent books are Two Marriages (fiction), Notes on Sontag (nonfiction), and At the End of the Day (selected poems).