Despite being inextricably linked with the French New Wave, director François Truffaut’s was much more of a classicist that some of his peers—notably provocateur Jean-Luc Godard—so it’s unsurprising that a handful of his films are drawn from obscure historical events. Clearly, Truffaut was just as comfortable looking backward for subject matter as he was looking forward for stylistic innovations. The Wild Child—originally titled L’enfant sauvage—represents his eclecticism well. The film’s story is set in the 18th century, and Truffaut utilizes many tropes associated with early cinema, such as black-and-white cinematography and the in-camera effect known as the iris. Thematically, however, The Wild Child is a thoroughly modern piece, since the narrative explores questions related to the comparative values of contemporary “civilized” society and primeval nature-based existence. (Although the film is not overtly presented as an allegorical commentary on the flower-child movement, such implications can be inferred.)
Based on a real-life event, The Wild Child tells the story of a preadolescent boy who was discovered living the woods of rural France after an unknown period of years, and then taken into the home a humane scientist who attempted to teach the feral youth basic communication, as well as basic morality. Truffaut never puts anything in front of his camera that isn’t essential to understanding the unique dynamic between student and teacher, making the brisk 85-minute picture a study in economy. For instance, the dialogue—largely comprising the scientist’s instructions to the boy and/or the scientist’s voice-over observations about the boy’s progress—is wonderfully sparse. On many occasions, Truffaut slides into laser-focused montage scenes set to exuberant Vivaldi music, and these scenes accentuate the challenges and joys of attempting something that outsiders might view as impossible—the socialization of a young human who, through circumstance, has become as much animal as man. (For quite some time, it appears the boy is deaf and mute, but therapy improves his hearing and, to a lesser degree, his speech.)
Shooting in black-and-white accentuates the clinical nature of Truffaut’s filmmaking, making The Wild Child seem like some lost artifact from a long-gone time; cinematographer Nestor Almendros’ naturalistic lighting cements the documentary-style verisimilitude. Truffaut himself plays the role of the scientist, Dr. Itard, and he gives a clean performance bereft of preening or vanity. This allows the focus to remain, as it should, on the wild child himself, whom Itard names Victor. (Playing the role is Jean-Pierre Cargol.) A fragile compendium of bizarre behaviors and nervous tics, Victor comes across as a beast in a cage—the cage being the “normal” world. This iconography contrasts effectively with the freedom the boy demonstrates during the film’s opening sequence, the only time he’s shown in his (un)natural element prior to being captured. One could argue that The Wild Child is both too restrained and too self-explanatory, but the touching ending and the compassion running throughout the film compensate for the remove that’s ingrained within Truffaut’s observational camerawork. Others have told similar stories with more intensity, but few done so with such intelligence.
The Wild Child: GROOVY