June 20, 2020

Public child protection agencies, like many government services, are often criticized and they often take a beating in the media and public opinion. This film offers a very different take on these services, at least as they appear to operate in France.

Jeanne Herry, France, 2019, with Sandrine Kiberlain and Gilles Lellouche


This film out of France, centered on the role played by governmental social services in contemporary adoption processes, begs the question : how French, or, conversely, how universal is this story ?

Even if it turns out there is a universal appeal to its thematic, let us look at it, first, as an unmistakably French film.

First, there is an elephant in the room, or, should we say, there is an elephant in the title. The word « pupille », meaning a child still dependant on adults, is usually tied to « l’État », the state, so as to mean : « Pupille de l’État », a child of the French State, a child under the supervision of the state, or the government, usually temporarily.


(this is a spoiler alert: do not read this section if you wish to follow the plot only a the screening of the film)

A young unmarried mother leaves her newborn for adoption. It is just not the right time for her to have the responsibility of rearing a child. At the other end of the spectrum, a single woman, already in her early forties, is looking forward to welcoming a newborn in her home. She had a partner previously, and she had been on the list of prospective parents for several years. Married couples were evaluated higher than her (being now a single parent), but the couple just ahead of her in the list turned down the offer , as they , unexpectedly, learned they were to have a child of their own.

In a decidedly contrasting current view of government as a bundling and incompetent entity, social services are here presented as quite competent and caring, assuring continuity and stability in the midst of not so stable individual lives in the so called civil society. Not only looking at cases from a strictly bureaucratic view, individuals from the adoption services are attentive to individual needs and rights (rights to confidentiality, and to change one’s mind under certain time frames, for example). They go further than respect of the formal rules of law, they are genuinely compassionate. Even the application of the bureaucratic procedures appear fully justified and applied with circumspection.

It is not so much that individuals in the film, in contrast, are not responsible. It is just that they are….well…human. Couples form and then separate, there are changes and some degree of uncertainty surrounding individual lives. Yet, no one is pointed out as potential total failures, save one male prospective parent obviously unfit for parenthood and turned down with diplomacy by the attentive and perceptive government services.

When looked at from the vantage point of their individual lives, the public adoption officials themselves, in the film, are not always immune to some form of personal uncertainty, although these elements do not affect their work negatively. It is as if their public persona transcends their private circumstances, and they grow to something more than themselves when confronted to their public duties.


Observers of the French bureaucracy, most notably Philippe d’Iribarne in his best seller La logique de l’honneur of 1989, have noticed this particularly French tendency to rise, at least outwardly, to the level of one’s public office. Without idealizing French bureaucracy, the failings of which have been abundantly documented over centuries, and without closing our eyes to the inevitable cases of corruption and incompetence in any large bureaucratic setting, there is nonetheless a certain idea of the devoir in France, the sense of mission, of duty, incumbent to public officials, even if only in public discourse.

With all the spotlight focussed on the global sphere, on the one hand, and the unavoidable and presumably perfectly harmonious cases of our interaction with our « loved ones », on the other hand, there stands the nuts and bolts of regular and currently unloved government, be it national, or state, or provincial. The film may well be a reality check to remind us that this level of human organization has not yet disappeared, and that, waiting for a more perfect world, it still assumes unavoidable responsibilities. This realization is the elephant in the film.

In the province of Québec ( Canada), a few decades ago, a group of sons and daughters of the locally famous authors of the Refus global (the Refus global was a letter of protest of the nineteen fifties against the presumed dark period of the Duplessis era) , had come out in the open to point out that their famous and heroic Refus global parents were themselves less than perfect, to say the least, in their parental duties. It was an unusual way to look at writers of a famous intellectual and artistic group, authors of an almost sacred Québec text.

In a similar development, some young men, who had been through the «Direction de la protection de la jeunesse», a Québec social agency overseeing problematic children from problematic parents, had come out to criticize a documentary film, itself documenting the failings of the DPJ, telling that, in their own cases, the DPJ had helped them along the way, contrary to the one sided documentary presentation. The right to speak one’s opinions sometimes gives way to unexpected results.


The real subject of the film is not a defense of bureaucracy. It is simply a reality check about a level of human organization, public social services, which can contribute its activities to improving things, even though those activities are temporary and limited. No more, but no less.

Although the film Pupille definitely has a French flavour to it, as the proportional size of the French public sector is sizeable, it is not completely without applying to other developed countries as well, exposed as they are to some of the failings of the nuclear family.

Our continued reliance on public services, even though criticized and seen as irrelevant in the face of globalization, is part of the bigger picture. The elephant behind the film is that we still need, at least for the moment, this level of human organization.