Among the seismic innovations of the French New Wave, it’s easy to gloss over the unsentimental approach of a movie like Franois Truffaut’s The Four Hundred Blows. Youth itself seemed to be being discovered (onscreen, at least)—delinquent, lonely and ready for future filmmakers to idolize, like Wes Anderson did in Rushmore.
Naked Childhood, which had its world premiere at 1968’s New York Film Festival, falls squarely in this category; Truffaut himself was a producer. But there’s no getting around the sense of overkill, as if someone were offering up a dare. You think you know heartbreaking awfulness? Try the brutal dispatch of a pet cat in the first 15 minutes, leading to a troubled foster child’s hard stare out of the backseat of a car, his surrogate parents having finally given up on him. Young Michel Terrazon is a vital presence; he’ll make you flip-flop between sympathy and a disciplinary glare.
The director is Maurice Pialat, a cult figure among cineasts for his unhurried pace and doclike camera. Sometimes, his work is praised as loose-limbed and similar to that of John Cassavetes, yet these comparisons aren’t quite right; they somehow demean the chops that go into a movie like Cassavetes’s A Woman Under the Influence. Pialat is undeniably second-tier, a maker of acute moods, but artistically unfocused.
Lovingly, Criterion attempts to mount the case for Pialat, beginning with two serious works of critical gush: one, a booklet essay by Phillip Lopate; another, a “visual essay” by Kent Jones. Also included are a French TV interview and a profile on the filmmaker made around the same time as the feature.—Joshua Rothkopf
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