Movies We Like
The Wild Child
—Dr. Itard reflects upon his discovery of the feral boy's sense of justice in Truffaut's 1970 film.
The Wild Child, Francois Truffaut's fact-based tale of the discovery of a young feral boy at the turn of the 18th century and the subsequent attempts of an impassioned scientist to educate him, is a film both compelling and tender in its simplicity.
The film opens in a serene forest in France. The year is 1798. A lone, bonnet-clad woman collects fruit in the lush and peaceful surroundings when off to the side she hears a commotion emitting from some bushes. Startled, the woman drops her basket to the ground and flees. With the coast clear, a young boy emerges out from the shrubberies. Gangly, filthy, with long matted hair veiling his face, he runs naked and freely through the forest. The next day, hunters, with leashed dogs in tow, parade the forest paths, vehemently searching for the reported feral child. Upon hearing the clamor of the noisy pursuers, the boy quickly scurries, evading capture. However, when the hunters release their voracious hounds, he is forced up a tree to escape their clutches. Perched atop a branch above the barking dogs, the boy has a moment of respite before his ledge snaps and he plummets swiftly to the ground. As one of the dogs ferociously latches onto the boy's arm, he fights back vigorously and a spirited struggle ensues. It doesn't last long though, when with a whimper, the dog falls limp to the ground and the boy once again escapes. The hunters quickly regroup and, after a time, discover the boy again, this time cradled in a small hole in the ground. The hunters, experienced in their present trade, with a smoldering stick begin to smoke him out from his subterranean sanctuary. The ploy works, as after a few coughs, the exhausted fugitive finally surrenders.
Based on the written accounts, Mémoire et Rapport sur Victor de l'Aveyron (1801 and 1806) from scientist Dr. Jean Marc Gaspard Itard, The Wild Child reenacts the doctor's five year "adoption" of the found feral boy. Truffaut stays true to the source material, making its presence felt by taking an observational, scientific approach to the film. This is firstly seen in the narration's development. Like a scientific study, a thesis is made early on by Itard (played by Truffaut himself) in voice over: to discover if the boy, deprived of a normal social adolescence, can develop normal verbal and cognitive abilities. The succeeding plot is both logical and episodic. At first, he is taken to a school for deaf/mute children where he is examined and observed. The boy wears multiple scars on his body from exposure and animal bites. One scar found on the center of his throat, however, evinces foul play. Itard theorizes that the boy was intended to be killed and abandoned, but survived the attempt. His ability for speech was unharmed however, and so Itard remains steadfast in his mission. Shortly after, he takes the boy to his home away from the city where he and his maid begin Victor's (as he is later named) long and tumultuous education.
The film then develops in a very episodic, yet very logical fashion. Each test Truffaut's Itard tries precedes the boy's reaction, which is always surprising and rewarding for the audience. It is compelling to see what Victor is capable of and if Itard can, in fact, succeed in his goal. The story eschews any added drama or antagonists, with any plot turns or twists coming from the boy's reactions and developments. Truffaut's camera is itself made to be an observer to the characters. With virtually no close-ups, the audience is held at a safe distance from the characters. As Itard observes, so does the audience. The scene's takes are long, often panning to follow Victor as his physical reactions are closely studied. In certain instances, the camera seems to quickly move out of Victor's way as he unexpectedly gets close to his observers. The idea of viewing is further enhanced by Truffaut's use of windows. The audience is regularly placed near a window, either looking in or out at the subjects. It is voyeurism, but done in plain sight. In transitioning from one episode to the next, Truffaut slowly closes the iris around Victor and holds for a moment before moving on. The audience, with Itard, looks at Victor though a microscope, studying his movements, his reactions, his development.
And Truffaut's film is ultimately about observation. In addition to his filmic exploration of women (see my review for Day for Night), Truffaut's interest in childhood adolescence is notably recurring. What compels Truffaut in The Wild Child, though, is not Itard's study or theories on verbal development, nor is it the idea of the "noble savage" prevalent throughout the enlightenment and beyond in both European and American colonial fiction and philosophy. His is not an exploration into the nature of man and his ability to be civilized. Rather, Truffaut quite simply adores the process of youth. How Victor learns, responds, retreats, and rebels is of the utmost fascination to Truffaut. Through Itard, he cares deeply for Victor and becomes more than an impartial researcher. His sentimental feelings for childhood are clearly the core of The Wild Child. This is highlighted by the lingering image of the film: that of Victor sitting inside the house gazing imaginatively out the window. He feels imprisoned by the civilized world, disinterested in propriety and learning. But for Truffaut, this is not because he is a "savage" meant for idyllic life in the freedom of nature, but merely because Victor is a regular boy.
Photographed in black and white by Nestor Almendros, (remembered mostly for his stunning photography on Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven), the film lacks any visual detraction from the audience's simple observation of Victor. Ironically, Almendros would later film another study of adolescent verbal development, only with a special primate as the subject in Barbet Schroeder's 1978 documentary Koko, a Talking Gorilla. His photography in The Wild Child, coupled with Truffaut's use of Vivaldi's mandolin concerto gives the film a warm, bright disposition that exudes a tender romanticism. And at the heart of the film is the amazingly nuanced performance of young Jean-Pierre Cargol as Victor. His simultaneous ignorance and seeming understanding of Itard is enacted with simplicity and straightforwardness. Not surprising as Truffaut has always managed to garner superb performances from children in his films. And The Wild Child is certainly no exception. Although different from Truffaut's other films in regard to story and plot, the touches of sentimentality and moments of youthful learning are unmistakably his. Indeed, Truffaut's ability to capture the spirit of youth—with their innocent and constantly evolving adolescence, their playfulness and stubbornness—is a hallmark of both The Wild Child and the filmmaker's entire oeuvre alike.