1932, France, directed by Julien Duvivier
It's not hard to imagine that life for many children in the early 1930s was a less than pleasant experience, with terrible poverty taking its toll, as documented in films like La Maternelle (or Wild Boys of the Road, which I haven't yet seen). There's something more going on here, however, with Duvivier exploring a profound disconnect between adults and children, and the terrible suffering that children endure as a consequence. The director previously filmed the same story in 1925, but clearly felt that the material had more to offer.
While the eponymous Poil de Carotte (Robert Lynen) initially embraces his return to the country after the school year, and runs free through the fields, there's a terrible hole in his life the moment he returns home: his siblings are actively conspiring against him, and his parents, whose marriage is a sham, alternatively abuse and utterly ignore him, with the latter fate especially bitter. Duvivier illustrates the physical distance between Poil de Carotte and those whose acknowledgment he craves, but focuses to an even greater degree on his protagonist's psychology. He dramatizes his inner life through clever use of double and triple exposure, showing conversations between Poil de Carotte's "good" and "bad" sides as the boy lies asleep, and conveying his growing sense of helplessness.
Although some adults sense the boy's troubles, and even endeavour to convey this to the parents - breaking class taboos in the process - they're apparently helpless to effect much change, and there's a distressing sense of inevitability, together with an almost brutal honesty about what a desperate child might consider (an echo again of La Maternelle). Those climatic scenes are almost unbearably tense, and Duvivier also introduces dramatic close-ups to underline the enormity of what may occur. As nuanced as the psychological portrait is, however, the scenes of family life seem less subtle: while Harry Baur is simply a gruff, uncommunicative father, Poil de Carotte's mother (Catherine Fonteney) is a harridan, taking out the failures of her own life on her youngest child, and lacking any sympathy even though her own story has many elements of tragedy. That said, there's something bracing in Duvivier's refusal to contemplate even mild sentimentality in the domestic portrait, with the household dissected without pity.