|Jean-Pierre Cargol in Francois Truffaut's ''The Wild Child.'' (MGM)|
The Wild Child
Lessons of 'Wild Child' still resonate today
God, I miss Francois Truffaut. The French New Wave director, who died far too young in 1984 at 52, touched on many genres, emotions, and themes in his 21 features, but he was rarely as plainspokenly empathetic as in "The Wild Child," the 1970 drama getting a rerelease today in a new 35mm print at the Kendall Square Cinema. The film's a rarity: case study as poetry.
"The Wild Child" is based on the true story of the Wild Boy of Aveyron, a feral 12-year-old who was found wandering naked in the forests near Toulouse in 1798. Scarred, savage, and unable to speak, he was taken to the National Institute for the Deaf and Dumb in Paris, where he came under the personal care of a young doctor named Jean Itard. Brimming with Enlightenment ideals, the latter saw a chance to test his theory that morality and language are what separate man from beast, and that these are learned. Given an animal, he would educate a human.
Itard is played by the filmmaker himself as a gentle and caring intellectual, moved to compassion by the boy's atavistic state yet roused by the challenge he presents. Itard names the boy Victor and treats him with firm kindness; an older woman named Madame Guerin (Francoise Seigner) provides housekeeping and maternal warmth. In the role of Victor, Truffaut casts Jean-Pierre Cargol, a dark, distant boy who doesn't act in the film so much as consent to be included in its gaze.
As so often in his career, Truffaut is both fascinated and moved by the sight of a young person trying to make sense of the world. Unlike "The 400 Blows," his breakthrough study of an alienated boy, though, the world wants to make sense of Victor as well. Itard patiently teaches the boy the alphabet, associates words with objects, and waits for a bolt of comprehension that stubbornly refuses to come. A Hollywood movie would build to the climactic reveal - Helen Keller moaning "wa-ter" by the pump - but Truffaut is interested in an emotional journey, which isn't the same as a sentimental one. Victor, for all his progress, remains an enigma. It's the doctor's education, and ours, that's the story.
Nearly four decades after its release, "The Wild Child" remains startling for its humane clarity, for Nestor Almendros's brilliant black-and-white photography, and for the sense that Truffaut is achieving filmmaking mastery on a very small scale. The movie's first image is right out of D.W. Griffith - an iris out on a peasant woman digging mushrooms in a wood - and the lushly overwhelming forest exteriors evoke painter Henri Rousseau. There's Breugel, too, in the Paris crowds the Wild Boy attracts. At times the movie seems to be filtering the history of Western civilization through the figures of a man and a boy trying to speak to each other.
Because Truffaut was an optimist, the movie ends with the high point of Victor's progress and suggests he'll go on from there. In fact, Itard soon gave up trying to teach the boy to read and write, satisfied that he had shown the moral judgment and sympathy for others to prove the larger point. Some modern commentators have read the doctor's notes and concluded that Victor was likely autistic. He died in 1828, still living with Madame Guerin. Itard's teaching survives as one of the bases of the Montessori method. Victor's story survives in this slight yet terribly moving film.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.