This movie killed me :'(. It just felt like such a realistic, raw, unsentimental portrayal of a problem child. I felt spent and helpless after watching this and kind of guilty because somewhere I could also sense this shiver of excitement at having discovered a film and possibly a filmmaker that I’m going to love. I loved the Varda films we watched in this series and yet, I think, this might just be my favorite of the bunch, difficult as it was to watch.
Firstly, the structure of the film. I was surprised by how the film doesn’t feel to follow an arc like most films seem to do. Francois doesn’t really go through any kind of transformation during the course of the film (or at least I don’t think he does) nor does the story follow some kind of beginning and end. It feels more like a snapshot of Francois’s life for a particular duration. This just enhanced the realism of the film for me and made it perhaps even a little documentary-like.
Secondly, the central character himself. I had read roujin’s review of this film a while ago and had come away with the impression that this kid is just pure evil. My reaction to him was very different somehow. I know, he throws cats down the stairwell, throws a switchblade at his foster brother, steals stuff from people who trust him and seems destructive to the point where he has no regard for the consequences of his actions. And yet, he also seems capable of such tenderness. Even in the first few scenes, when he is playing with Josette, he is being affectionate and brotherly. He remembers to buy his foster mother a farewell gift and as he gets into the car, I get the sense that he is genuinely sad to be leaving them behind.
And then once he gets to the old couple’s house, all the moments where he is just watching Pépère working or listening to him tell stories and his scenes with the old grandmother (e.g. the one where she’s singing a song) — all show him to be capable of such warmth and joy. Similarly the film never feels completely hopeless to me. The scene where Mémère is sitting on Pépère’s lap and talking about how they are so much in love and how Mémère would cry everyday once Jean Pierre left the house indicate that the world is not just a hopeless place and that there are indeed families with loving parents and affectionate kids. Also both Mémère and Pépère’ seem capable of so much forgiveness which balances out the cruelty that Francois repeatedly seems to exhibit (the scene where he spills the soup on Raoul completely caught me unawares and the smile on his face when he did that just made it even worse).
And then there’s his reaction to the grandmother’s death. The image of him standing in her empty bedroom in the dark… .
I constantly found myself thinking that it is the instability of his surroundings and the abandonment by multiple people (albeit probably with good reason) play a big part in what makes him the way he is. And yet the film doesn’t offer up a pat explanation like that. We see that both sets of foster parents are ultimately well-intentioned and start out wanting to be kind and loving parents. Secondly, we see Raoul, who also seems to have moved around a bit but seems better-adjusted and less destructive than Francois.
Just to continue on that point about the role played by the environment that Francois is surrounded by… I thought the film did a really nice job of showing us this surrounding. We see right at the start of the film, these workers marching in protest of something I think. Throughout the film, we get all this background on the foster care system, the people who work there, the kind of families that serve as foster families and so on. All of this never felt judgmental to me but merely as if one were documenting what these things are like. Another time when this really struck me was when Francois is leaving from the first foster home. We see him leaving in the car (see screenshot above) and I was concerned about what would happen to him next. But instead of following Francois and the car, we instead see the camera enter the house and we spend a few minutes with Josette and her mother. This struck me as rather unusual but also set me up for a film isn’t necessarily going to be about what happens to Francois or show me the world from Francois’s perspective.
I was also struck by all the images we see of Francois looking out at the world and at the people around him. I am not sure what exactly he is thinking on these occasions but something about these images were very moving to me. To me, they felt partially as though Francois is hiding from these people and partially as though he is just taking their measure or taking stock of the situation and what to do next and sometimes, I felt like he was wondering how long he would be able to stay with these people. These images also seem to denote a basic lack of trust perhaps. Maybe I’m reading too much into this but these images really stayed with me.
I also loved all the performances. I thought the kid who played Francois was just perfect. There’s a scene when he’s on the train and the lady who works for the agency is asking him all these questions about his foster parents and school and so on and there is a whole range of emotions that he manages to convey with great subtlety. Also loved Mémère and Pépère’ who always seemed totally genuine and natural. Again, the little things seem to be done so perfectly here. The scene where the director of the agency brings Francois to their house for the first time. Mémère expresses her hope that “he isn’t too awful?” and the director doesn’t really say anything in response and just through her body language, I thought she was able to convey that she knows the answer but is prepared to deal with the eventuality that he is a troublesome child. She does all this without giving much away through facial expressions.
Also loved the wedding scenes (do French people really sing a lot of songs?). The bride singing that song just made me grin so much and everyone just seems so happy. And when the girl is singing, the film cuts to Mémère and a couple of the other guests and we see that Mémère isn’t smiling but that she has a serious expression on her face as though she is trying hard to remember the words to the song and then suddenly we see her break into a smile as if she suddenly realized that they’ve reached a line that she is particularly fond of. I loved this little scene so much. I don’t know but it felt like a moment that just couldn’t have been written into the script but that just happened.
Some more scenes I loved. The scene in the movie theater where we see Francois hanging out with these older boys. On the one hand, I thought it was so great to see Francois hanging out with friends and having fun but at the same time, these boys with their switchblades hardly seem like the best people for him to be around. But the atmosphere I thought was captured perfectly.
And all the scenes where Francois is just running away from something just totally reminded me of The 400 Blows as did the entire film obviously.