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Tuesday Morning Foreign Region DVD Report: “L’Enfance Nue,” (Pialat, 1969)

There's one way in which Maurice Pialat's 1968 L'Enfance nue (Naked Childhood) fundamentally differs from the other two films about (male) childhood with which it otherwise stands pillar to pillar. Those being Truffaut's The 400 Blows (1959) and Ken Loach's Kes (1969). The difference is, where Truffaut and Loach would like the viewer to be charmed by, if not out-and-out fall in love wit, the young boys at the centers of their films, Pialat's picture, the director's feature debut, is not invested in any such thing at all. Indeed, Pialat assures that most of the audience will be thoroughly alienated from young Francois (Michel Tarrazon) right off the bat, showing the kid dropping a helpless cat down the center of a circular stairwell from about five stories up. He and his buddies are experimenting, you see. Beset by something resembling remorse, Francois makes a vow to look after the now-crippled and (understandably) dejected feline, a task he finds a bit too taxing. The business about the cat, however, is just a last straw of sorts, and before we can get settled in with Francois' miserable home life, the kid is sent to live with a kindly elderly couple who temporarily provide shelter for such unwanted strays, as it were. On the train out of town, Francois is seated with a group of younger orphans, none of whom can melt his hurt insolence. Later, on a jaunt to a movie theater, Pialat cuts away from Francois and his young friends to show a gang of teen roughnecks, one of whom entertains his fellows by almost, not quite, carving up his forearm with a switchblade. Without hitting us over the head with it, Pialat shows us a possible projection of Francois' future, and whatever out attitude toward the kid might be, the prediction is terrifying nonetheless. The shot also looks ahead to a world of self-hating, self-damaging Pialat characters, but that's another story.
Another unusual feature of this brisk 80-minute film is that Francois is not really its center, not in the way that Antoine in The 400 Blows or Billy in Kes is; while those character practically dominate every scene, Francois is absent from the screen for very nearly one-third of the film. Pialat lets his gaze go where it will, taking in both environment and behavior. He does not presume to take Francois' point of view; one suspects he's not particularly interested in Francois' point of view. What he is interested in are Francois' surroundings, because those surroundings constitute a world, and this film needs not just to be about that world but to be in it. Hence, I think, what Kent Jones, in his superb essay about the film included in this DVD's packaging, calls the "existential pull" of Pialat's best work: "There is so little evidence of aesthetic attitudinising or strategising that we become genuinely attuned to the film as a series of precious moments...Many filmmakers before and after Pialat tried to reach this level of absolute proximity between fiction and documentary, actor and character, setting and place."
Does this make Pialat a "director of moments," as they say? And what does it mean to be that thing? Rather than open up that debate right now, I, and I hope everybody else, will keep an eye out for the subsequent Eureka!/Masters of Cinema editions of Pialat's work, the next one up is 1974's La Gueule ouverte, a sort of bookend piece to L'Enfance-Nue, taking as its subject death rather than childhood. Revisiting the Pialat body of work is glorious, bracing work, and the MOC editions, which kicked of with L'Enfence and Police, are wonderful tools with which to do so. The Region 2 disc of L'Enfence is accompanied by a full disc of well-produced extras as well as the aforementioned booklet. And the package also contains Pialat's first film, the 1960  short L'Amour existe, a sort of Of Time And The City avant le lettre, only with its dominant theme more "A Season In Hell" than "Paradise Lost."
Pialat is no Swanberg.

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