Grade: BWild Child, The (1970)

Director: François Truffaut

Stars: Francois Truffaut, Jean-Pierre Cargol

Release Company: MGM/UA Video

MPAA Rating: G

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Truffaut: Wild Child


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Linguists, educational psychologists, and child development specialists salivate whenever a feral child is discovered. What a goldmine for research--without the normal "corruption" of parental and societal influences, a rare individual growing up in such a pure natural environment provides fertile ground for a myriad of theories about cognitive development. The most prominent case study involves Victor of Aveyron, discovered in the woods near Tolouse near the turn of the 19th century, coincidently near the end of the Enlightenment when many debated about what distinguished man from animal.

When Lucien Malson cited Victor's case in his 1964 book, Les Enfants sauvages: Mythe et réalité (Wild Children: Myth and Reality), François Truffaut immediately bought ten copies (a customary routine when a book interested him for a film project) and assigned writer Jean Gruault to construct a screenplay, which eventually turned into L'Enfant Sauvage (The Wild Child). First came copious research, followed by Truffaut's meticulous annotations on his original 243 page script, a re-write of 400 pages that would run at least 3 hours on screen, and extreme editing to get down to a manageable 83 minute running time.

Having grown up in a dysfunctional home, Truffaut had long supported child welfare, and it's notable that he dedicates The Wild Child to Jean-Pierre Léaud, leading actor (and alter ego) of his Antoine Doinel films. He saw this project as a means to address concerns he had about political and societal indifference to child neglect and abuse:

"There can be no doubt that the number of abused and merely unhappy children will increase considerably in the years to come. Naturally the same is true for juvenile delinquents. Anyone can point to the reasons for this: too many unwanted children, housing crises, overcrowded schools, teacher shortages, derisory social assistance . . ."
-- Truffaut, 1965 interview in Heures Claires
This project marks the beginning of Truffaut's collaboration with cinematographer Nestor Almendros, whose simple black and white work with Eric Rohmer's My Night at Maude's had caught Truffaut's attention. They would go on to make a total of nine films together.

Striving for a classical look, Truffaut sets his film on location in Auvergne's forests with minimalist dialogue, a largely objective camera often at mid and long range, and a recurring "closing iris" technique reminiscent of the silent film era (this last technique seems overstated). Indeed, so much of the film is communicated through the visuals that it hardly needs subtitles. Always meticulously prepared, Truffaut screened many silent films for inspiration, no doubt gleaning insights about how to stage the screenplay as visually as possible. Adding a poignant tone are frequent Vivaldi excerpts that often feature a solo recorder when young Victor (Jean-Pierre Cargol) is framed in isolation--so appropriate since the boy really does inhabit a private world.

The plot is very simple. An opening shot shows a woman gathering herbs and plants in the forest when she is startled by a mysterious rustling of leaves. Thinking that she's come across a dangerous wild animal, she gets three men and their dogs to track down the creature, and soon the chase is on--men with rifles and bloodhounds chasing a lithe naked boy. An estimated 12 years old, the boy doesn't speak and has a number of scars, most notably one around his neck. One professor thinks that there's something wrong with the boy and that his parents tried to kill him--that he's an idiot or mental case that belongs in an institution; however, Dr. Jean Itard (Truffaut) takes an opposing stance. He theorizes that the boy has been isolated on his own in the woods since the age of three, and that he can be educated.

Itard volunteers to take the boy in with the aide of his housekeeper Madame Guerin (Françoise Seigner) and proposes to study his progress. Naturally there are ups and downs to any child rearing stories, especially in such an unusual scenario. Itard questions his mission, wondering why he has brought so much sorrow to the boy since he seems so at home in the woods. Just what is the benefit of learning a few words and performing tasks that any highly trained animal could do? His answer comes in a memorable scene, and true to form Truffaut ends his narrative ambiguously after showing glimpses of hopefulness and despair.

The film works largely because of the authenticity of the feral boy. Truffaut interviewed and photographed nearly 2,500 children before selecting five finalists for screen tests. Dark skinned gypsy Cargol was finally cast for his nimble body and "animal like profile," and he certainly recreates the famous real life Victor of Aveyron, at least in the early forest scenes. Cargo seems to adjust to civilized life a bit too readily, but that is largely due to the economy of the script. His tantrums also seem a bit too close a copy to Patty Duke's Oscar winning performance, so Cargo may have seen too many scenes from The Miracle Worker to develop his own style, but he captures the right tone.

As does Truffaut in his first major acting performance. Dr. Itard was the last role to be cast, and the director considered a number of television actors and a journalist that he thought could tie in the educational aspects between Itard and the wild child, and then began talking about hiring an unknown. In reality, Truffaut saw himself in the part, feeling that he'd be comfortable "directing" a child who doesn't speak. And as usual, he is right for the part. The Wild Child may not satisfy the Blockbuster crowd, but this often overlooked film will stimulate educators and anyone interested in the learning process. It's a difficult film to forget, and that's a huge plus.

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