This article was originally published on the Barbican blog as part of the promotional push for the Chronic Youth film festival I was co-programming.
1976 was a year of radical filmmaking – and nowhere was this clearer than at the Cannes Film Festival. Nagisa Oshima’s Ai No Corrida, the festival’s most sensational film, rewrote the rules of on-screen sex; Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1900 tried to be a crowd-pleaser while also comprising five buttock-numbing hours of Italian Marxism; and the Palme d’Or ended up going to a 33-year-old Martin Scorsese, whose Taxi Driver made history with its distressing themes and graphic violence.
But there was one film that, while every bit as radical, refused to sensationalise its subject matter. Slipping quietly through the Cannes dragnet, its nuanced and poignant portrayal of compromised youth proving uncomfortably ahead of its time, it has until 2018 languished in obscurity.
Charting a teenage boy named Paul’s search for love and affection in Occupied Paris, A Child in the Crowd is semi-autobiographical – Blain was abandoned in childhood by his father and spent three of his teenage years under Nazi rule. Played movingly as a young boy by Jean-François Cimino and as an adolescent by 14-year-old César Chauveau, who puts in a mature and indelible performance, Paul navigates an adult world in a straightforward, matter-of-fact way, his gradual loss of innocence belied by his ever-calm exterior.
It is interesting to look at A Child in the Crowd in a post-French New Wave context. Though he never became a household name, Gérard Blain was highly respected by New Wave luminaries such as François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, both of whom cast them in their early short films. Our screening will be preceded by Truffaut’s 17-minute 1957 short Les Mistons (The Mischief Makers), which remains a breezily charming showcase for Blain’s youthful good looks and rapport with his then-wife Bernadette Lafont.
Truffaut would go on to say: ‘Gérard Blain had the courage to do without oratorical hedges; he offers no ‘alibis’ for his characters.’ Although this kind of obscurantist language is typical of a Cahiers du cinéma stalwart like Truffaut, he is tapping into a truth that A Child in the Crowd illustrates to powerful effect: what makes Blain stand out is the ineffable reality of the people in his films. They do not exist to point things out to the audience; they are not ciphers or mere cogs in a narrative. They are, purely, themselves.
In this way, Blain can be compared with other post-New Wavers while standing apart from them. Opting neither for soul-searching experimentalism à la Jean Eustache, nor for formal and structural volatility à la Maurice Pialat, Blain mines a rich Bressonian seam. It is surely no coincidence that the near-wordless opening scene of A Child in the Crowd, featuring a young Paul crying in the back seat of a car, mirrors the similarly wordless opening of Robert Bresson’s Un condamné à mort s’est échappé (A Man Escaped), in which a young man tries in vain to escape from the back seat of a car.
Blain’s film can now take its rightful place among the canon of ’70s films passing an honest eye over Occupied France – though again, despite having several cousins, A Child in the Crowd is an only child. In the years following the resignation of President Charles de Gaulle in 1969, France began to shed its image of itself as a heroic wartime nation, and started coming to terms with its complicity and self-deceptions during and immediately after the War. One memorable example of this new revisionism was Louis Malle’s 1974 film Lacombe Lucien, a cold, unvarnished chronicle of a French boy who collaborates with the Nazis. Two years later, competing with Blain’s film for the Palme d’Or at Cannes, came Joseph Losey’s Monsieur Klein, a Kafkaesque tale of mistaken identity and French anti-Semitism that viewed Occupied France as rife with mistrust and moral apathy.
A Child in the Crowd is not as dark as either of these films, but, excepting its lack of commercial footprint, is every bit as significant. It raises questions of agency, innocence and the abuse of adult male power that have only become more relevant and pressing in 2018 – and yet, by being true to the experience of its young protagonist rather than propounding arguments or issues, it remains timeless and profound.
Don’t miss this rare screening: if you do, it may be a very long time before it comes around again.