Part autofiction in its reflexive tale of emotional abandonment and part social realism in its clinical illustration of the nation’s overtaxed foster care system, Maurice Pialat’s L’Enfance nue finds greater kinship with Jean Eustache’s studies on hybrid modes of representation than with a deconstructed cinéma du papa that François Truffaut’s involvement as the film’s co-producer would suggest. This intersection is established in the opening shot of a workers’ solidarity march that cuts to the image of a working class woman, Simone (Linda Gutemberg) fitting her foster son, François (Michel Terrazon) for a jacket, attempting to elicit the word “mom” from the taciturn boy after leaving the shop with their purchase. Like the young protagonist, Daniel (Martin Loeb) in Eustache’s Mes petites amoureuses, François has been placed in the custody of others by an absent mother, and the uncertainty of his place within his surrogate family surfaces in acts of displaced aggression. However, while Daniel remains in the care of biological relatives, François has been scuttled from one foster home to another, unable to be permanently placed while his mother continues to reserve her right to regain custody. Despite Simone and her husband Roby’s (Raoul Billerey) sincere attempts to welcome François into their home, his makeshift room on the stairwell landing is a constant reminder of his temporary station within the family. Frustrated by his increasingly destructive behavior and propensity to steal from shops around town, his foster parents return him to the custody of the state, where he is escorted by social workers traveling on their monthly return trip to bring back abandoned children who were not able to be placed for adoption in Paris in the hopes of finding local families willing to take them in. Placed in the care of an older couple affectionately called Mémère (Marie-Louise Thierry) and Pépère (René Thierry), François gradually begins to adjust to his new life with his older foster brother and roommate, Raoul (Henri Puff), until a family tragedy seemingly reinforces his insecurity and leads to a senseless act of adolescent mischief. By placing François’ destructive nature within the context of workers strikes that defined the sociopolitical landscape of 1968, Pialat illustrates the intrinsic connection between personal and social history. In this sense, Pépère’s chronicle of his family history as members of the resistance who were killed during occupied France not only serves as a gesture of inclusion, but also introduces the idea of rebellion as a necessary passage towards defining one’s identity and sense of place. Juxtaposed against images of transit that occur throughout the film – a train ride from Paris, an overloaded station wagon transporting abandoned children, an ill-fated passing car – Pialat reframes François’ sense of dislocation and rootlessness as an ironic act towards a newfound, if familiar identification, where home continues to represent a distant and elusive ideal.
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