The Wild Child

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December 7, 2010 by Matthew Mesaros

When people get to talking about the cinema of François Truffaut this is rarely the first film that comes up and indeed it’s often omitted entirely. To some degree that’s understandable; the film lacks all the hallmarks of the Nouvelle Vague that made Truffaut famous. Nonetheless it’s interesting that this film offers us another window into the topic with which Truffaut made his name; that of childhood entering the larger world as explored in Les Mistons and of course his most famous film and feature debut, Les quatre cents coups.

L’enfant sauvage is an entirely different film. Where his previous work might have held shades of autobiography this film is based on a true story outside of the director’s own experience. The immediacy, energy and experimental edge of the Nouvelle Vague are also missing as the film adopts more traditional tones. I suspect it is this willingness to move back into more traditional means that allowed a lot of the negativity surrounding Truffaut’s work to breed. Unlike many of his contemporaries, who pushed and harried film theory at every turn (Godard above all), Truffaut seemed happy enough to sit back down into the artifice and techniques of older generations of cinema when it suited his needs despite the Cahiers crowd’s vehement attacks of such things.

L’enfant sauvage is something of a retelling of the story of the Wild Boy of Aveyron. More accurately it involves a recreation of the relationship between the boy and Dr. Jean Marc Gaspard Itard, based on Itard’s own medical reports. To sum up, in 1800 a young boy estimated to be between ten and twelve years old was discovered in the forests of Saint-Sernin-sur-Ranch in France. Although the film simply shows him being captured and brought to Paris for examination in actuality the young boy, later named Victor, escaped and only later re-appeared to the populace; apparently of his own volition. The boy seemed to have lived in isolation in the woods for the majority of his life and lacked what many would consider the basic traits of humanity such as the ability to speak and communicate. He was considered a feral child, adopting the mannerisms of a wild animal rather than of a human.

The incident of the Wild Boy of Aveyron came at an interesting point in western philosophy. With the rise of interest in epistemology and Enlightenment thinking, primarily with Locke and particularly Rousseau, this wild child, freed from the bonds of society, offered insight into alternate human possibilities. He also offered insight into the various prejudices of the time; the idea of a lack of social conditioning designating one as a secondary or even non-citizen or an exotic other akin to the peoples that populated countries France had colonized. Of course looking back with the further research that has been done today it is easy to see shortcomings in the processes designed to deal with Victor, but his place in the history of developmental psychology is assured.

When interest in the boy peaked he was brought to Paris where he was examined by some of France’s top doctors before being placed in an institute for the deaf. It was presumed that the boy was both deaf and a mute and some considered it was because of this that the boy was abandoned. Itard, digging further, realises that the boy is neither of those things but simply does not use the senses in the same way a more socially conditioned child would. Victor does not turn when he hears a loud sound because he realises he has no need to; it does not sound like a threat. Having been written off as an idiot (by medical definition) by other practitioners, the boy is taken into Itard’s custody for education. It is this process which Truffaut documents.

Truffaut’s film seeks to simplify various details of Victor’s story with an eye to making this completely a story about Itard’s quest to teach Victor. Major details have been omitted, perhaps most pointedly the fact that Victor did have some remnants of clothes (a shirt collar) on him when he was found, while Truffaut depicts him as naked. Theories abound as to the boy’s actual origins with many theorising that the scars on his body (referenced in the film) were not the result of injuries sustained in the wild but rather the result of continued abuse at the hands of cruel parents. A wound in the boy’s neck certainly suggests that an attempt was made to kill him before abandoning him in the wilds. The theories of the day suggested that perhaps the boy had been abandoned because he was a deaf mute. As this is not the case more recent theories have been proffered with some suggesting the reason behind the boy’s abandonment, cemented in Itard’s own written accounts of the child’s behaviour, was that Victor represents a very early record of an autistic child.

The event being so long ago now we’ll never really know the truth but to this day Itard is known primarily as a founding figure in pedagogical methods for deaf, mute and severely handicapped children. If autism was indeed the chief barrier between Victor and the world then Itard’s methods never quite addressed the problem but he did experience some success. The name Victor was chosen since the boy seemed to react positively to broader vowel sounds and although he never acquired language Itard did manage to elicit two phrases, ‘lait’ (milk) and ‘Oh, Dieu’ (Oh, God) from him.

More modern research into developmental psychology suggests that there are critical periods in the development of the brain during which certain ideas must be imprinted for them to take hold. Language ranks chief among these and so Victor’s banishment from society during his formative years may have left him incapable of ever properly acquiring linguistics. Again Truffaut is not much interested in the theory but rather in the patience and good will of the doctor as he tries to unlock the mind of this young boy, an enigma to all of society.

Stylistically, Truffaut’s film is unusually restrained when compared to his earlier work. I suppose the period setting hinders him somewhat but gone is the very conscious location photography of his key earlier works and obviously, being based on real events, there’s also no place for the improvisation of something like Tirez sur le pianiste. Instead we have a very traditional drama photographed in black and white. The photography is assured if largely unexceptional though some of the flourishes with lighting when the action moves outside, particularly the play of light through the leaves in the opening sequences as Victor is being chased and eventually captured, did put me in mind of the great Japanese cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa’s trendsetting work in Kurosawa’s Rashômon.

Whilst surely not among his best work it’s worth noting that the director of photography here, finding his feet in Paris among the New Wave crowd, was none other than Néstor Almendros. The only really unusual cinematic element is the tendency of Truffaut to open and close chapters with slow iris transitions, a seeming throwback to silent cinema. Within the film the performances all seem competent and appropriate. Unknown child actor Jean-Pierre Cargol plays Victor and ticks all the right boxes. He avoids overly familiar mannerisms and possesses a pleasant energy in the role. Despite showing an obvious physical talent for the craft, Cargol apparently only made one more film before disappearing from view entirely. In the role of Itard, Truffaut himself shows his talents in front of the camera in his first major acting role. It seems appropriate that a director who devoted much of his craft toward tales of youth should adopt such a fatherly role.

The problem with all this is that while Truffaut’s film is on point, well played and well shot it never overcomes a certain dryness with concern for its topic. Itard’s experiments to train Victor and the various peaks and valleys in their time together make for a convincing story but there’s little room within all this for the audience to intrude. I’d imagine for the parents of autistic or developmentally disabled children there might be an element of bittersweet recognition in the events depicted here but generally speaking the film finds nothing to really elevate the material beyond basic re-enactment.

I suspect what Truffaut was really trying to push was the story ‘between the lines’ concerning social perception of ‘others’ and questions regarding ‘what constitutes a person?’ Interesting and noble topics to be sure but I can’t help but wonder if his faithfulness to Itard’s original documents didn’t stifle the possibility for unique investigation within this new filmed text. Everything else is in place but the film lacks that sense of energy that defined so much of French cinema, including Truffaut’s earlier work, around that time. This being the case the film stands more as a curio either for those interested in the case of the Wild Boy of Aveyron or for those who simply wish to complete their knowledge of Truffaut’s career. Nonetheless it can hardly be faulted for being traditional either. A fine film but really only that.

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