A CHILDHOOD (Une enfance) B+
France (100 mi) 2015 d: Phillipe Claudel
Philippe Claudel has written half a dozen novels and spent more than a decade working as a teacher in prisons, currently a Professor of Literature at the University of Lyon while turning out his fourth film, a coming-of-age foray into social realism, using a novelistic, kitchen sink style portrait of a child coping with the brutality of life while living a marginal existence, following Jimmy (Alexei Mathieu), a 12-year old in 5th grade, having already repeated two grades. As much a portrait of a deeply troubled child as it is the working class environment where he lives, it’s appropriately set in the filmmaker’s home town of Dombasle-sur-Meurthe, a small industrial town of less than 10,000 residents in northeastern France not far from the German border. No one photographs children like the French, where they seem to have a mastery over the medium. To the filmmaker’s credit, except for a few exceptions, the small cast consists of non-professionals working for the first time, where he plans to revisit the subject of Jimmy in three and six years from now, completing a trilogy by the time he turns 18. Using the Truffaut template from The 400 Blows (Les quatre cents coups) (1959) or The Kid With a Bike (Le gamin au vélo) (2011) from the Dardennes brothers, the strongest elements of the film are its naturalism and the stunning power of Mathieu’s performance. From the outset we see the difficulty he’s in, all but ignored by his drug addicted mother Pris (Angelica Sarre) who has just been released from prison, living on her welfare check, while her boyfriend Duke, Pierre Deladonchamps, last seen in Stranger By the Lake (L'inconnu du lac) (2013), is an obnoxious, continually agitating petty thief, dope dealer and pimp that ridicules the working class while sitting on his ass watching television, drinking beer, and an assortment of other drugs while abusively scaring the living bejesus out of the kids to leave them alone, where Jimmy and his 9-year old brother Kevin (Jules Gauzelin) are forced to take care of themselves, which includes setting the morning alarm, making sure his little brother is up, clean and fed, as they’re off to school without the adults so much as moving an inch, as they spend their nights partying and making a racket, drinking and consuming whatever drugs they can find. Duke is a candidate for the worst stepfather cinema has ever seen, though Deladonchamps literally inhabits the role, as you don’t wish him on anyone, even your worst enemy.
Since they’re constantly kicked out of the house, Jimmy and his brother turn up everywhere, breaking into an abandoned warehouse screaming profanities, seen wandering the streets, the city canals, and the nearby farmer’s orchards in the countryside, where they’re often shooed away for trespassing in areas they’re not supposed to be. Kevin follows him around, sometimes as a comical sidekick, profanely lambasting his ineptitude as goalie in a local soccer match or wanting to come to a student’s birthday party he wasn’t invited to, which turns out to be a cute girl from Jimmy’s class named Lison (Lola Dubois) living in the luxury of a giant backyard surrounded by gardens and trees, stealing a pair of earrings from his mother (that she never notices missing) to offer as a gift. Picking up an old racket from the trash, Jimmy spends idle time watching the action on the tennis courts, where he has seen footage of Jimmy Connors play tennis on TV. When the instructor encourages him to sign up for lessons at 60 euros, this is way beyond anything his family can afford, so he doesn’t even bother to ask for it. On Sunday’s they visit their grandmother, wishing they could stay with her instead, as she leads a much more calm and sensible lifestyle, but she can’t accommodate them, leaving them stuck in an endless cycle of misery. While their life would be altogether different without the sinister presence of Duke, the kids can see their mother is brutalized by him, literally beating her into submission in order to pimp her out for sexual favors, as they helplessly see him rewarding her afterwards with flights of heroin, making her more dependent upon him than ever. Seething with an inner rage, Jimmy tries to stand up to him, but he’s just a kid, where he’s routinely instructed to get lost. Claudel continually contrasts the incessant brutality with tender moments from an original musical score by Ray LaMontagne reminiscent of the early folk style of Neil Young, or scenes of Jimmy sheltering a baby kitten in the wilds of a nearby bush, or inexplicably getting occasional hugs from his mother.
Winner of the Gold Hugo for Best Film at the 2015 Chicago International Film Festival, one gets the sense that there’s an improvisatory rhythm to the way the story unfolds, loosely structured with a very matter-of-fact maturity surrounding Jimmy’s perspective, often feeling like an extended series of small incidents that may serve little overall purpose except to highlight his reaction to a variety of circumstances, where he’s often forced to play the adult, seen buying the family’s groceries or allowing his younger brother into bed with him after having a nightmare, but scenes from his classroom suggest he just doesn’t fit, where in a film about childhood what’s surprising is how little time is actually spent in the company of other kids. These two simply don’t have any friends to speak of, as they’re instead continually left alone to fend for themselves. Despite the best efforts of his well-meaning teacher (Patrick d’Assumçao), he can’t prevent this kid from falling through the cracks, as there’s literally so support system in place. A visit from the welfare worker is an infuriating joke, the neighbor next door who can hear and see it all keeps his mouth shut, where the saddest truth about a world besieged by budget cuts is allowing kids like this to fail, where there’s no tutor, extracurricular activity, or the availability to spend quality time with others. The benefits of learning socialization skills have been replaced by test scores and a reliance on scientific measurements at the expense of helping a child adjust to an often cruel world around them. This kid is bright and mature beyond his years, but lacks proper guidance, where there’s clearly no indication he has much of a chance to succeed. It’s a dense and often muddled journey, with literally inspired acting from the two brothers, where you can literally feel the accumulation of time, beautifully shot by Denis Lenoir, the longtime cinematographer for Olivier Assayas, prolonged by a continual series of painterly images accentuated by the bright sunlit colors of the long and lazy days of summer vacation where Jimmy futzes around with nothing to do, as his brother is shipped off to grandmother’s house, where the world is radiantly alive, but he’s simply not a part of it. The director himself makes an appearance at the end as a tennis instructor, finally allowing Jimmy onto the court once all the lessons are done and there’s otherwise no activity to speak of, adding a personal autobiographical context that at least offers a sliver of hope.