François bounces to and from a number of foster homes, settling for much of the film into the care of an elderly couple (René Thierry, Marie-Louise Thierry), who’ve also taken in Raoul (Henri Puff), a smart student intended to be François’ “big brother.”
Though François continues his misbehavior by fighting classmates and spilling hot soup on Raoul, it occasionally seems he will be OK, like the scene where François endearingly listens to his “grandparents” swap stories about their biological children. But soon, he’s raising hell again.
Why? So many scenes throughout the film end in such abruption that it’s frustratingly unclear what causes François to go from calm conversation with his “grandfather” to tossing railroad spikes off an overpass. By dodging any true sociological questions and jerking around the audience’s hopes for the boy, Pialat often detaches us from both his subject and the story.
We end up not giving half of a damn about François because Pialat suggests that his life will be a cycle of entering and leaving foster homes and causing havoc. Antoine Doinel, the lost youth of François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows nine years earlier, at least had a purpose: to reach the sea. Even if Pialat’s story continued into four sequels, all his protagonist will ever want to do is kick a hole in the door.
L’amour existe (19:52): This short film, aka Love Exists, directed by Maurice Pialat eight years before the release of L’enfance nue, “depicts life in the suburbs of Paris and the dead-end existence of the youth residing there.”
Kent Jones (11:12): In this visual essay, author Jones (Physical Evidence: Selected Film Criticism) discusses the style of director Pialat and his debut feature.
Maurice Pialat (15:35): These excerpts from a 1973 interview (for an episode of Champ contre-champ), have the director discussing L’enfance nue’s “subject matter, its commercial failure, and his intentions as a filmmaker.”
Arlette Langmann and Patrick Grandperret (6:24): This 2003 interview has L’enfance nue co-writer Langmann and assistant director Grandperret reminiscing about Pialat, who died just over three months before it was conducted.
Also included with this Criterion Collection DVD is a 12-page booklet featuring an essay titled “The Fly in the Ointment” by author Phillip Lopate.