L'Enfance nue is a sad, beautiful movie. It's also an extremely realistic and heartfelt depiction of the foster child system and its limitations. While I had serious problems with the first Pialat movie I watched, A nos amours, I was impressed with the director's technique, and therefore had a positive attitude going into this film. I was rewarded with an emotionally satisfying coming-of-age journey that lacked the unintentional romanticization of Pialat's later film.
L'Enfance nue was Pialat's first feature, and it's structurally odd. Rather than watch Francois being shuttled through multiple foster homes - or perhaps a more conventional three or four - Pialat has chosen just two: his first long term landing with a couple that decides he is too much to handle, and a real-life-foster-parent couple that ends up being the closest he will seemingly come to feeling like he has a family. The film shifts between moods, showing Francois at his most vulnerable and empathetic before revealing the rage and misguided rebellion of his darker moments. It also looks away from Francois just enough to give us a broader idea of the foster system in France without overloading the film with message moments that would read like a wannabe documentary. Finally, the movie ends extremely abruptly, as Francois's voice is heard reading a letter he has sent his foster parents. It's an uneasy finale - we all know despite his best intentions that Francois cannot be fully "saved" - but the movie is not intending to wrap up his story any more than Truffaut wrapped up Antoine Doinel's story in The 400 Blows (though, unlike Truffaut, Pialat never felt it necessary to literally revisit Francois's story).
The comparison between these two coming-of-age films - released nearly a decade apart - is especially apt because each director's touch runs parallel to the stories of their respective films. Where Truffaut was all bluster and moviemaking flash, his Doinel was intent on ruining the relatively stable (emphasis on relatively) life he led at home and at school. Conversely, Pialat is careful to avoid leaving a fingerprint anywhere on his film, and Francois's story is similarly gentle and reactive rather than aggressive. Of course, it's impossible to avoid leaving your mark on a film you made, just as it is impossible for us to know how Francois is feeling without seeing the destructive or downright cruel things he does. Pialat is extremely aware of both of these things. His care when dealing with each is what makes him a superb filmmaker, even at this early stage in his career.