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Naked Childhood (Maurice Pialat, 1968)
In Naked Childhood’s earliest scenes, Pialat allows us to observe Francois without courting judgment of him. He goes shopping with his family. He teases his sister. He throws a cat down a stairwell, and then vows to nurture it back to health. There’s a sense that although he’s not a perfect child, he is remorseful. One could excuse his behavior by falling back on the old logic that boys will be boys. Soon, though, his mother, who’s revealed to be his foster mother, states to a social worker without exaggeration, “He’s made our life a misery.” With this scene, Francois is transformed in our eyes. Suddenly, his actions seem callous, his tantrums dangerous. His previous transgressions become a firm indicator of a nasty streak that Pialat refuses to resolve or patly explain away. For the rest of Naked Childhood, Francois is a force that both the characters in the movie and the members of the audience will have to contend with.
Pialat is a master at acknowledging myriad viewpoints when showing how people interact. In Naked Childhood, most of the subsidiary characters seem as richly drawn as Francois. From time to time, Pialat leaves his observations of the boy so he can turn his camera onto one of the people that his actions affect. Characters, such as his browbeaten “dad”, a social worker that interrogates him on a train, or his frustrated “grandparents” are given attention in a manner that refuses to privilege Francois’ viewpoint or encourage our embrace of his behavior. Awareness of every variable at play leaves Naked Childhood rife with constant familial tension. A family to Pialat is not a collective, but rather an assemblage of distinct individuals, and this sense is multiplied here, in a foster home, where bonds don’t run as deep, even if obligations do.
Naked Childhood’s style is handheld, with natural lighting. The director stands back and allows action to unfold, without dictating it. Extraordinary scenes, such as the one where Francois’ second set of adoptive parents explain how they came to adopt, or the one in which the two matriarchs of Francois’ home titter over a risqué novel, have a felicity that seems borne of documentary. To call Naked Childhood documentary-like, however, would be a disservice to fictional cinema’s ability, at its very best, to be more vivid than reality.
Pialat understands behavioral nuance better than most. Take for example the different kinds of violence the boy engages in. Pialat sees that an affectionate tussle with his new brother, a retaliatory slap at his sister, a mischievous prank without consideration of circumstances, a bully’s initiation, and irrational lashing out at the dinner table all express different things. Underpinning each outburst, however, seems to be Francois’ existential dilemma. The world, to him, is not a reliable place. Knowing that his mother could reclaim him at any moment, he resists forming attachments.
Watching Naked Childhood, one can’t help but think of Truffaut’s classic The 400 Blows. Pialat’s accomplishment here seems greater than Truffaut’s, though. In Naked Childhood, affections for characters never permit the director to make excuses for them. Michel Terrazon, the actor who plays Francois, is not merely cute. He’s a sponge, always absorbing information, but his emotions remain hard to read. His embodiment of youth has a certain alien quality about it. His basic irrationality stymies our mature predictions of his behavior. As a result, his performance stands, undeniably, as one of the greatest depictions of childhood that the screen has offered.