'A Childhood' ('Une enfance'): Film Review

Courtesy of UniFrance Films
Soberly atmospheric but undone by a twist ending.

The fourth film by French novelist and director Philippe Claudel ('I've Loved You So Long') looks at the coming-of-age of a young boy from a tough background.

After making Before the Winter Chill, a classical drama about bourgeois ennui that starred Daniel Auteuil and Kristin Scott Thomas, French novelist and occasional director Philippe Claudel (I’ve Loved You So Long) does something radically different in his fourth film, A Childhood (Une enfance). This Ken Loach-ian story of a 12-year-old boy who tries to survive in a provincial household where a belligerent step-dad and drug use run rampant, is more impressionistic and, somewhat paradoxically, undone by an unexpected plot twist. And instead of stars, the small cast is a mix of non-professional actors and relatively fresh faces, which didn't help at the French box-office, where it opened to decent reviews and tepid numbers. It will bow stateside at the Chicago Film Festival.

The entire narrative of Claudel’s latest unfolds in the director’s birthplace, Dombasle-sur-Meurthre, an anonymous town of just under 10,000 souls on the outskirts of provincial capital Nancy, in the Lorraine region (on the border with Germany). Indeed, there’s a sense throughout that Claudel wanted to tell a story that’s close to him and close to home (Winter Chill was set in Luxembourg), which might also explain why, for the first time, he also appears onscreen in a small role. The novelist-filmmaker plays a tennis instructor from a poor background who tries to goad the young teenage protagonist, Jimmy (newcomer Alexi Mathieu), into signing up for a summer tennis course. However, the boy, who’s twice repeated a year at school so he’s now two years older than his classmates, is wise beyond his years and knows that his family can’t afford the €60 (almost $70), so he doesn’t even bother to ask for it.

Jimmy’s mother, the 30-year-old Pris (Angelica Sarre), lives with her current boyfriend, Duke (Pierre Deladonchamps, Stranger by the Lake) and her two young sons by other fathers: 12-year-old Jimmy and his younger half-brother, Kevin (Jules Gauzelin). They live in a working-class and shambolic row home — Samuel Deshors did the excellent production design — though Duke spits on people who have or even look for a job, since all employers are "only interested in exploiting their workers and lining their pockets." Instead, he spends his days drinking cheap beer, doing heroin and other assorted drugs and bossing everyone around. He's the kind of man who thinks nothing of recruiting Jimmy to help him out during a burglary in the middle of the night or send him to his dealer to pick up his shit.

Claudel, who again wrote his own screenplay, abandons the more rigidly structured approach of his previous films here in favor of a much looser way of storytelling, with many scenes not having a clear narrative function beyond helping sketch an idea of what the lives of these characters are like and how the family members relate to each other and the world around them. What emerges quite early on is that Jimmy has taken on a role in the household akin to that of a substitute parent, not only doing groceries and making sure he and Kevin have regular meals but also looking after their mother, especially after the drug-fueled parties at their house. This creates a messy but fascinating power imbalance because Jimmy is occasionally forced to be very independent and mature while at other times he’s treated like a child by the adults around him.

Duke — Lorraine used to be a Duchy, so his English-language name suggests he’s a bit of a cowboy while also nodding to local history — is often unreasonable and sometimes physically aggressive. Rather incredibly, Deladonchamps manages to make the character’s many contradictions believable; he blames the misfortunes of himself and his country on "the Arabs," for example, even though his best friend (Fayssal Benbahmed) has Arab origins too. Though the film stays close to Jimmy’s perspective, Claudel also manages to suggest Pris’ obvious emotional and sexual dependence on her good-for-nothing boyfriend, even though he brings nothing to the table himself and might even be dangerous for her children.

No doubt hardened by his experience, Jimmy is often aloof and sometimes fickle in the way young boys from rough backgrounds can be (see Loach’s Kes or the protagonist of the Dardenne brother’s The Kid with a Bike). But audiences understand he’s neither blind to what others have nor heartless, as his interactions with a cute white kitten and a cute bourgeois classmate (Lola Dubois) demonstrate. (The former subplot’s more of an outline or facile shortcut though the latter is played just right.) Young Alexi Mathieu is certainly a find, and as the film’s title already seems to suggest, Claudel plans to pull a Boyhood and revisit Jimmy/Alexi in films three and six years from now.

For most of the running time, there’s nothing new on-screen but the film forges ahead just fine as a soberly atmospheric take on a childhood summer in a tough family and a region that has clearly seen better times. But Claudel the novelist’s desire for structure and meaning starts to get the better of him as the film develops and he seems to be too attached to minor characters who might have a sentimental meaning for himself, such as a kind schoolteacher (Patrick d’Assumcao, also from Stranger by the Lake), who gets quite a lot of screen-time to do nothing much. (Claudel's own few moments as a tennis coach are more powerful.) And then there’s the closing sequence, in which a major plot twist suddenly sheds a very different light on the protagonist. The problem here is that there’s no time left to examine the impact of Jimmy’s drastic decision, which makes this film unsatisfactory, at least as a stand-alone item. 

Production companies: Les Films du Losange, France 3 Cinema

Cast: Alexi Mathieu, Angelica Sarre, Pierre Deladonchamps, Jules Gauzelin, Patrick d’Assumçao, Fayssal Benbahmed, Catherine Matisse

Writer-Director: Philippe Claudel

Producer: Margaret Menegoz

Director of photography: Denis Lenoir

Production designer: Samuel Deshors

Costume designer: Laurence Esnault

Editor: Isabelle Devinck

Sales: Les Films du Losange

No rating, 104 minutes