This was Maurice Pialat’s feature film debut at the age of 43. Eight years before he had made L’Amour Existe, an angry, mournful short film-poem about the working-class Parisian suburbs. Francois Truffaut, impressed by the short and relating to Pialat’s ambition to create a work that presented the unvarnished reality of life for orphans and foster children, helped to produce. Michel Terrazon, a first time actor, portrays the alternately violent and tender 10-year-old Francois and Marie-Louise and Rene Thierry effectively play themselves, an old couple with a long history of taking in troubled children.
What we end up with is a work that seems to come from an alternate history of the cinema, where the aesthetics of the Lumiere actualities and the emergence and reliance on the narrative fused into some mutually enriching co-operative form, and the near annihilation of the former in favour of the latter didn’t occur. Kent Jones, in a perceptive essay, noted as much in pointing to the idea of “a shot not as a single unit, but an event in time and space observed from a closer distance than usual… and grounded in an extremely class-specific form of portraiture… people as they are seen in this place at this time of year under these skies and in this light.” Perhaps this interest in the image and action of the present moment explains Pialat’s lack of interest in psychological explanation, his lack of social didacticism. For Pialat, it would appear, naked existence alone is what matters and in coming as close as possible in a non-documentary format (for Pialat did not trust the documentary) to the capturing of this there is the possibility of the blooming of respect and understanding, as needs be.
This is not to suggest that the film is aesthetically lacking or threadbare. Pialat’s past as painter allows for a masterly control of colour, worked for the strongest possible physical and emotional impact. This is a form of manipulation, but certainly not one that is a betrayal of Pialat’s aims and style. He simply grasps and maximises the potential of the constituent visual elements of reality; the colours already exist, Pialat just knows how to use them. Pialat is not a Demy-esque repainter of interior and exterior spaces (which is not to suggest that Demy is not also a master of colour control and impact, for he is- it is simply the methods and meanings which are different, and Demy is still the most brilliant and brilliantly subversive director of Lumiereian musicals).
In considering film-makers similar to Pialat I have thought most often recently of Alan Clarke, the British director who worked mostly in television, and who seemed to operate in a similar zone of simultaneous complete control and mastery and detached, observational distance. Clarke was often equally elliptical and equally fond of subverting the ‘social issue film’ through a presentation of gestures, ideologies and acts with a raw simplicity free of any didactical social or psychological explanation beyond that which can be grasped at by the audience themselves from the film’s presentation of the characters-in-action and their environment. With Trevor in Made in Britain or Bexy in The Firm, for example, we have a similar sensation as with Francois in this film, as we emerge with a concurrent feeling of a complete understanding and complete non-understanding of their lives and minds. We are constantly thrown off-course by their contradictory, sometimes stereotype-breaking behaviour. Pialat suggested he wanted no broader social resonance in his work, although this is countered by Philip Lopate’s note on the copious research Pialat carried out on the social service system in France, and by the fact, as with Clarke, we are left with far more questions and a far more troubling suspicion about the institutions and systems that govern our lives and those of the characters we see than in most single-minded, dull Kramer-esque ‘social issue films’.
Pialat is not often thought of as a ‘warm’ director (quite the opposite), but his treatment of the old couple and several scenes between them and Francois (and between Francois and the grandmother) are remarkably warm, tender, even sweet, as well as rich in emotional resonance and the awareness of and wisdom that comes from the burden of experience and history. These scenes are the silver lining to the cloud, if one wishes to use an old cliché that is undoubtedly true in this case, and an acknowledgment of the things of worth that can be gained from life. Pialat’s sense of solidarity with and simple respect for his working-class characters, as noted by Kent Jones, runs throughout the film and its accurate depictions of their lives and traditions. M. Thierry, after all, is a resistance hero turned shelterer of troubled children, but Pialat is not interested in bestowing patronising sainthood upon him and would rather, and far more moralistically, acknowledge the simple worth of his existence in all it’s complexity.
It is the sort of gesture that defines this work, one of the most fascinating and enriching debuts in film history.