Back in the early 00s, I was studying the philosophy of science. Studying philosophy is very similar to being one of the generals, comfy in a French chateau miles away from the front and seeing the world purely in terms of previous wars fought by previous generations. I was taught the history of philosophy in terms of rationalism vs. empiricism rather than within a proper historical context (I did not truly understand the point of Leibniz’s philosophy until I read Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle). Sometimes we would hear news of young South American Logicians doing wonderful things with multi-variant logical systems and the smarter kids had sensed a shift in academia’s prevailing winds and hitched their philosophical wagon to actual scientific research rather than debates held by angry young graduate students who were now port-soaked emeritus professors. However, one battle I was all too eager to fight was the one between science and continental philosophy, part of the wider academic clash of empires known as the Science Wars. In all the books, all the arguments and all the pages of incommensurable bickering that went on, I still remember someone pointing out that, for all the political anger of critical theorists, no member of the working class had ever actually benefited from a piece of critical theory. This is something of a cheap shot as the suggestion is that, as academic debate is an irredeemably bourgeois activity, leftist critical theorists are all hypocrites of the highest order. One might well quibble with this rather haughty and dismissive comment but it does seem to be close to the opinions held by Maurice Pialat.
Pialat was originally a painter who was in his 40s before he made his first feature film, L’Enfance Nue. His first short film, a cinematic essay on the state of contemporary France called L’Amour Existe (1960) was an elegant work halfway between the sentimentally vicious poetry of Franju’s Le Sang Des Betes (1949) and the barely-contained documentary rage of Ophuls’ The Sorrow and the Pity (1969). Based on this work, Pialat convinced Truffaut and a number of other luminaries of French cinema to fund his first feature-length film all about abandoned children.
The film focuses upon Francois (Michel Terrazon), a 10 year-old boy who was abandoned by his mother and left to the mercy of the French adoption services. When we first encounter Francois, we can see that he is rapidly running out of leeway with his foster parents. We see him stealing from a bar, we see him smashing up a watch and we see him picking up his foster sister’s pet cat and dropping it from the top floor of his block of flats. When the director of the adoption services pays a visit on the foster family, they lay out a whole series of crimes including leering at his foster sister while she is washing. The director decides to take Francois back into care and Francois unexpectedly goes out and buys a present for his now former foster mother.
Francois himself is a strange cinematic presence. Pialat gives Terrazon hardly any lines, forcing him to adopt a more physical form of performance based upon body language. Because we have no real insight into Francois’s inner life, we gain no handle on why it is that he does these things. We see him happy, we see him angry, we see him mischievous and we see him angry but as the film goes on, the connection between Francois’ apparent emotional state and his lapses into violence becomes all the more tenuous. This is radically different to the ways in which cinema and the theatre have traditionally portrayed children. Francois is not a reflection of a romanticised and rebellious youth in the way that Antoine Doinel was in Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959), nor is he a theoretical problem to be solved by an amateur psychologist, a loving foster parent or an authority figure willing to give him a chance. He is not a rebel, he is not a victim, he is not a hero. He is simply a child. Hence the title of the film.
As Francois travels back to the regional orphanage, he is stuck travelling with a group of much younger children who are being taken into care. In a move that is initially jarring in a work of narrative fiction, one of the women accompanying the children gives an interview direct to camera about her experiences. This is a deeply telling scene. It re-enforces the fact that, while the film has a central character, it is not really a film about Francois. Francois is simply representative of the experience of many of France’s abandoned children. He is one of many. In a film that is primarily about the lives of abandoned children it is vital to get across the facts of their existence and one of the most efficient ways of doing this is by simply asking a professional who works in the field. Pialat could have dramatised what the woman says but he chose instead to allow her to have her say in her own words.
Both Pialat’s depiction of Francois and his interview with the social worker show a remarkable desire to put the raw facts of existence in front of the audience. This is territory that is eagerly staked out by pretty much every film-maker who does not consider himself a stylist. However, the problem comes when it comes to determining what actually constitutes reality. Humans are abstracting beasts who love to look for patterns and so, when trying to understand the world it is natural for us to form theories. Theories about human nature, theories about the class system, theories about the nature of the universe. When humans write fiction, even fiction said to be based upon real life, they fill in the gaps based upon their wider understandings of the world. They fill in the gaps. This means that fiction never really depicts reality as it is, only as it is thought to be. Reality is mediated by the theoretical commitments of the artist. Pialat tries to get around this problem by stripping his films not only of theory but also of the niceties of dramatic pretence. In allowing the social worker to have her say, Pialat is fracturing the fourth wall. In showing Francois’ life as a series of scenes unconnected by dramatic arcs, Pialat is sacrificing dramatic impact for what he sees as truth. We are not supposed to ‘make sense’ of Francois, only to see how he lives and how people react to him. Pialat treats theory, technique and all forms of editorialising as needless intermediaries between the audience and the world. This idiosyncratic approach is particularly evident when one considers Pialat’s depiction of class.
As in Pialat’s later film about teenagers Passe Ton Bac D’Abord, he seems happiest when filming scenes of every day life. Pialat lavishes attention on small rituals such as the way mothers behave when taking their children to buy clothes, or the way in which fathers will send their children to buy cigarettes in order to get them out of their hair while they are drinking and betting on the horses. Both Passe Ton Bac and L’Enfance Nue contain wonderful scenes set in provincial working class weddings and Pialat clearly loves capturing the ways in which people would sing for their friends and family, performing to entertain each other as those who know the words join in. these types of sequences are so lovingly captured that they come close to being the raw data of social anthropology. Indeed, the film’s most moving scene is almost a war memorial.
Having been sent back to the orphanage, Francois is soon re-housed with an elderly couple. Played by real-life couple Marie-Louise and Rene Thierry. While these non-professional actors had roles to fill in terms of the wider story, Pialat was quite happy to allow them to be themselves in front of the camera. This opens the lid on a wonderful world of quirky working class culture. For example, the couple refer to each other as “pe-pere” and “me-mere”, baby talk for grand-father and grand-mother with a secondary meaning implying ease or cushiness. Clearly, these names have been adopted to get round the issue of them calling themselves the parents of their foster children. But this distinction implies only to them. Foster children under the same roof are referred to as siblings and relations of the foster parents have the same titles as if they were just normal children.
The Thierry’s are also a genuinely wonderful screen presence. As with the woman on the train, the old couple deliver these near-soliloquies, recounting their experiences. When they talk about how they met, Madame Thierry sits on her husband’s knees, peacefully drinking coffee. Later, Monsieur Thierry sits Francois down and talks to him about the war. Monsieur Thierry is a retired miner who now does odd jobs around the house. If something breaks, Thierry fixes it. He is proud of his skill and speaks of how he could have been an engineer. In one moving scene, he speaks of how he went underground with the resistance after the Nazis came for him and his friends. He speaks with pride of the comrades he lost and the medals he won defending his country. In response, Francois kisses his cheek. Thierry carefully removes the fag from his mouth and kisses the child in return.
Watching this extraordinary sequence, I was reminded of Ophuls’ The Sorrow and the Pity with its tales of former Vichy functionaries who went on to have successful post-War political careers. I was also reminded of Jean-Paul Sartre who trumpeted his resistance credentials despite the fact that all his resistance cell ever did was meet and talk. While Sartre was putting on Huis Clos for a Nazi audience, Rene Thierry was in hiding. Sartre went on to become one of the most famous men in Europe. Thierry got to tell his story to a child in a film before quietly putting his medals back in the drawer. He could have been an engineer.
This is the true validation of Pialat’s commitment to the real over the expediencies of theory. L’Enfance Nue came out in 1968. In response to the social pressures building towards that incendiary year, fellow Nouvelle Vague member Godard made La Chinoise, a film all about middle-class intellectuals discussing theory. A few years later, Chabrol’s Nada saw him tying himself in knots over his realisation that he would never climb a barricade. Instead of debating theoretical matters and the moral justification for using force to change the world, Pialat set down a camera in front of the working class and allowed them to tell their own stories. Stories that speak more powerfully of a need to change the world than any piece of Marxist revolutionary theory.