Partly as a result of the hammering that Carné had received from opinionated critics in the mid-1950s, Terrain vague received very mixed reviews when it was first released. Admittedly, the film has its flaws – the plot is a tad contrived and has a tendency to slip into melodrama every so often – but, in its favour, it is a pretty accurate representation of how things were at the time, and has something of the uncompromising starkness seen in contemporary Italian neo-realist films – notably Pasolini’s Accattone (1961).
Marcel Carné’s direction and Claude Renoir’s cinematography are anything but démodé and vividly evoke the rough, precarious world in which the unloved, alienated protagonists live. Working with so many inexperienced actors is always a gamble, but Carné gets the best out of his young cast, and the result is a film that is thought-provoking, poignant and, at times, shocking (with its overt suggestions of incest and teenage rape). The film’s two principal setting – the blocks of cheap apartments with their interminable staircases and the ruins of an old factory – provide apt visual metaphors for the world in which the socially excluded youngsters live and their far from appealing future: an ordered life of soulless drudgery or a freer life of squalor, crime and deprivation.
Both Marcel Carné’s Terrain vague and François Truffaut’s Les 400 coups remain surprisingly relevant to this date. The problem of juvenile delinquency has not gone away and, if anything, only appears to show signs of increasing as the traditional family unit rapidly becomes a thing of the past. Both films are worth watching, but it is Terrain vague which more forcefully encapsulates the situation and is more likely to prompt the spectator into engaging with what is becoming one of the most important social issues of our time.
© James Travers 2008-2011