It should come as no surprise that Francois Truffaut is listed as one of the producers on Maurice Pialat’s debut feature-film The Naked Childhood (L’enfance nue). Pialat would go on to direct a number of other features, including the great A nos amours (1983). Truffaut, by 1968, had already made five features, had co-directed one, and was set to release two more.
Pialat came to relative prominence post-New Wave and, while the fascination with wayward youth was present long before the trend-setting 400 Blows, and long after the end of the New Wave, his The Naked Childhood feels a bit too much like Truffaut’s influential masterpiece.
As a standalone film, which admittedly is how films should be evaluated, The Naked Childhood has quite a few great moments as it follows Francois (Michel Terrazon), a terror of a foster-child. Terrazon gives a great performance, Pialat’s camera is more distanced and observational than that of Truffaut and many other contemporaries, and while the scenes themselves often breathe slowly, the transitions are quick and sharp, giving the film a pacing that is magnificent in its ability to feel both fast and slow simultaneously. The intimate portrayal of youth and the elderly is warmly displayed in Francois’ relationship with his grandmother-in-law, and the woman’s death is subtly and heartbreakingly rendered.
So…as a standalone film, The Naked Childhood succeeds in its nostalgic look at youth. But comparisons are inevitable, and particularly unavoidable here. When Francois throws things at cars from an overpass and runs away from the police one is reminded of Antoine Doinel with a television. The long tracking shots throughout are the same.
Of course, Doinel and Francois aren’t exactly the same, and that is at the failing of The Naked Childhood. The vignette structure represents a really bold and rather ingenious plan by Pialat, and one that is both rewarding in its design to mimic the in-and-out shuttling of a foster child and that fails in its inability to string together enough of a truly emotional connection to Francois.
What The Naked Childhood is is one of the most true-feeling looks at foster care I’ve seen, and for this alone it ought to be commended. One wonders how this film might have differed without Truffaut’s guiding hand, and how much influence the venerable director had.