“As I saw it, the essential task in this was not to do the directing, but to attend to the child.” – François Truffaut, introduction to The Wild Child screenplay1
Made halfway through the director’s career, L’enfant sauvage (The Wild Child, 1970) is François Truffaut’s most seemingly straightforward work. Using documentary-style strategies – the film is “based on a true story” – it possesses simplicity of construction and depth of vision. It looks back at Truffaut’s relationship with children on film, and puts him in front of the camera as a principal actor in his own work for the first of three significant times in his career.2 By stepping into his own narrative, Truffaut makes The Wild Child much more than a historical retelling – he performs a personal examination.
Truffaut found the story in Lucien Malson’s 1964 historical survey of children recovered from the wild, Les enfants sauvages: mythe et réalité. Its appendix contained Dr. Jean Itard’s 1801 memoir and 1806 report on his tutelage of Victor, the “Wild Boy of Aveyron”, a feral child who was captured in 1800 near a small forest village in southern France. Itard took the child from the institute for the deaf where he was housed and brought him into his home, attempting to civilise him and teach him language. Truffaut calls Itard’s records “superb, consisting of writing that is simultaneously scientific, philosophical, moralizing, humanistic, by turns lyrical and familiar”3 – qualities we find in Truffaut as well.
The narrative in which a pupil is raised from “beastly” to “human” status is also found in such films as The Miracle Worker (Arthur Penn, 1962) and The Elephant Man (David Lynch, 1980). Truffaut himself was a precocious but neglected child, self-taught and rebellious. His initial rise to public notice as a fiery, bad-boy film critic (termed “the gravedigger of the French Cinema of Quality”, he was banned for a time from Cannes4) was abetted by his mentor and father figure, film critic and theorist Andre Bazin. When Truffaut turned to his own boyhood as the raw material for his first feature film, Les quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows, 1959), he cast 14-year-old amateur Jean-Pierre Léaud as alter ego Antoine Doinel. This film’s success launched Truffaut’s and Léaud’s illustrious film careers. (Léaud would continue to play Antoine in four sequels spanning 20 years.)
In The Wild Child, Truffaut recreates this mentorship pattern yet again – the film’s opening title states that it is “for Léaud”. Truffaut tried to create the same kind of relationship with 12-year-old non-actor Jean-Pierre Cargol, who plays Victor. He was a Gypsy child found by Truffaut’s assistant, Suzanne Schiffman, on the street in Montpellier. Casting himself as Itard, Truffaut as director created a project in which he needed to engage on screen as a mentor for his child protagonist. This new adoption did not “take” creatively – Cargol, though adept, was not another Léaud, and did not continue working in film.
Originally, the film was divided evenly between Victor’s time before Itard and his time with him. While reviewing the script, director and critic Jacques Rivette made the invaluable observation that “everything that doesn’t directly concern the child is distracting or boring”.5 Gradually, the first half, depicting Victor’s initial captivity and display to the public, was cut to a minimum.6
The Wild Child is beautiful, shot as simply and effectively as a silent film. Néstor Almendros’ cinematography is perfectly suited for capturing the story with a clean, shadowless light that seems to imbue scenes with warmth and the clarity of the Enlightenment. The framing is rectilinear, presenting most of the action as if it were on a stage or part of a clinical demonstration.7
The teaching of Victor is presented as a long and frustrating progress, but as progress nonetheless. By film’s end, Itard has even determined that Victor possesses a sense of right and wrong, although he must treat him unjustly in order to provoke a reaction. When, at the film’s climax, Victor runs away and then returns of his own volition, the film quickly ends with a pleased Itard lowering his emotional guard, stroking Victor’s hair affectionately and stating, “You’re no longer a savage, even if you’re not yet a man.”
This happy ending is a false one, contrived, though Truffaut was smart enough to anticipate this criticism. “The fact that I preferred to finish the way I did was not, I believe, to reassure the audience,” he says.8 In fact, the real Victor did run away once, briefly, but was returned to Itard by gendarmes. He never gained command of language, and wound up living under supervision until his early death, around the age of 40, in 1828. No miracles were worked. This makes the ending of The Wild Child as large a feat of wish fulfilment as the end of My Fair Lady (George Cukor, 1964).
In a way, the child is almost unnecessary, as the focus is really on Itard – what can he accomplish? How will he do it? What does he think? Truffaut recapitulates his own youth, this time from the point of view of an adult. Sam Solecki points out that it is the reverse of The 400 Blows: instead of losing his family and a place in society, The Wild Child’s protagonist gains them.9 For Truffaut, the story must end happily.
But Itard can use language and Victor cannot, and so Victor never becomes “real” in the film: he cannot present his perspective, articulate his feelings, create his own narrative, as the young Truffaut did. Itard identified humanity’s defining qualities as those of empathy and language. Truffaut states, “Being deprived of speech is a critical frustration. That is the painful point of this story.” Truffaut demonstrates how difficult it truly is to transmit a sense of humanity.
At the same time, Truffaut undercuts his rational, humanist message throughout the film. He feels it is necessary for the individual to join society, yet he deeply distrusts society. Itard benefits Victor, but he also takes from him. Bathing Victor in hot water, Itard says, “What he loses in strength, he will gain in sensitivity.” Clothes and shoes and hard unrelenting lessons drive Victor to distraction. When Itard tests Victor by attempting to punish him without cause, Victor fights back and bites him. Itard stops and embraces Victor, saying, “That’s good, you’re right. You were right to rebel.” Truffaut absolves his symbolic self.
As Victor is first transported to the Institute, he escapes for a moment. He runs to a brook, pauses and drinks, gulping with his mouth while splashing playfully with his hands. It’s like one last moment of worship, of oneness with the natural world. In nearly every interior shot after that, windows open out upstage, highlighting the beauty of the forest from which Victor has been extricated, beckoning, far more fascinating than anything going on within.
Truffaut is half in love with the idea of the noble savage, but he reveals more. In the few moments that Victor can get outside, bathed in rain or moonlight, he seems revitalised, as Itard gazes out at him from his window. Truffaut plays the adult, but he remains in secret sympathy with the child.
L’enfant sauvage (The Wild Child, 1970 France 83 min)
Prod Co: Les films du Carrosse, Les Productions Artistes Associés Prod Mgr: Marcel Berbert Dir: François Truffaut Scr: François Truffaut, Jean Gruault Phot: Néstor Almendros Ed: Agnès Guillemot Mus: Antoine Duhamel
Cast: Jean-Pierre Cargol, François Truffaut, Françoise Seigner, Jean Dasté, Annie Miller, Claude Miller
- François Truffaut and Jean Gruault, The Wild Child, trans. Linda Lewin and Christine Lémery (New York: Washington Square Press, 1970), p. 14. ↩
- The two other films in which he plays major on-screen roles are La nuit Américaine (Day for Night, 1973) and La Chambre Verte (The Green Room, 1978). ↩
- François Truffaut, Truffaut on Cinema, Anne Gillain, ed., trans. Alistair Fox (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1988), p. 198. ↩
- Carole Le Berre, François Truffaut at Work (London: Phaidon Press, 2005), p. 12. ↩
- Le Berre, François Truffaut at Work, p. 138. ↩
- Truffaut, Truffaut on Cinema, p. 198. ↩
- For comparison, watch Herzog’s jagged and surreal The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974), another fact-based historical tale of someone raised in isolation. ↩
- Truffaut, Truffaut on Cinema, p. 202. ↩
- Sam Solecki, A Truffaut Notebook (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2015), p. 139. ↩