Review: L’Enfance Nue

By Jose Gallegos

Youth in France is not always portrayed on film as sunshine and rainbows. From Antoine Doinel’s emotional abandonment in The 400 Blows (Truffaut 1959) to the tragic life of Mouchette in Mouchette (Bresson 1968), the life of the modern French child always seems to be one of perpetual sadness. It comes as no surprise that Maurice Pialat’s debut film, L’enfance nue (1968) followed in the same footsteps as its predecessors.

L’enfance nue tells the story of François Fournier (Michel Terrazon), a troubled ten-year-old who is moved from foster home to foster home without any type of stability. After his latest actions result in the death of his foster family’s cat, François is returned to the foster care center. The social workers at the center place the boy with the Minguets (Marie-Louise Thierry and René Thierry), an elderly couple who is interested in expanding their family. François’ adjustment to the Minguets takes some time, but he soon finds comfort and contentment as the days pass. Unfortunately, one of his pranks (throwing railroad nails at oncoming traffic) lands him in hot water and his stay with the Minguets is put into jeopardy.

Pialat’s talent of documenting unflinching reality can be traced back to his earlier documentaries and short films. It was this same talent that François Truffaut took note of in 1960 after viewing Pialat’s short L’amour existe (1960). Truffaut offered to help fund Pialat’s first feature, which would fittingly evolve into a film that echoed Truffaut’s own debut, The 400 Blows. However, it must be understood that L’enfance nue does not simply reimagine Truffaut’s work. While the two films share similar lead characters (boys who are abandoned by their parental figures), the two directors diverge in their realization of the boys. Truffaut’s The 400 Blows ends on a somber note, but he continues the mythology of Antoine Doinel by filming four sequels that follow the boy into adulthood. In contrast, Pialat’s L’enfance nue only captures a small segment of François’ life. There is no sequel, nor is there a clear resolution. Pialat only offers a simple story, one whose ending provides a small glimmer of hope, but does not completely assure a happy ending.

This ambiguous ending works well due in most part François’ evolution as a fully realized character. His actions and subsequent consequences are not sugarcoated, nor are they sentimentalized: François drops a cat down many flights of stairs; he steals food from the concession stand; and he throws a knife at his brother’s head, barely missing him. Yet for every detestable action, François redeems himself with small acts of kindness: he takes care of the injured cat; he buys his foster mother a scarf before he is sent back to the foster care center; and he spends time with his bedridden grandmother. By balancing the good deeds with the bad deeds, Pialat crafts a complex character that is hard to grasp. At moments, he seems too troubled to be loved, but then he changes and his actions prove there is goodness beneath his hard shell. François is merely the result of his circumstances and the only people who will deal with him are the ones who recognize that they must dig through the mud in order to find the beauty that lies within.

Pialat’s documentary-like style manages to dig through the mud that covers François. He does not attempt to create a nostalgic childhood for the boy, nor does he fashion François as an “adorable ragamuffin.” Instead he creates dark clouds that reveal the inner sadness of the misunderstood François. Yet, even though Pialat paints these clouds with shades of black and grey, he still provides spots on the horizon that reveal a secret sunshine, one that still manages to shine through even when the weather is rough.

89/100 - Pialat’s style and realistic characters craft a beautiful film, one that ushered in the prolific career of one of France’s most acclaimed directors.

Los Angeles Film Critic. I'm an aspiring filmmaker from Los Angeles. Recently, I graduated from USC with my Bachelors in Cinema/Television Production and French (yes, I'm a "phile" for all things "cine" and "franco"). I will continue my academic career by pursuing a Masters in Film Studies at UCLA (feel free to call me a traitor).