THE WILD CHILD (François Truffaut, 1969)

If, like me, you enjoy some of the matter of The Miracle Worker (Arthur Penn, 1962) but find its Broadway/Hollywood treatment ridiculously bug-eyed and melodramatic, you may find more rewarding refuge in L’enfant sauvage (best film, French critics), which François Truffaut directed from his and Jean Gruault’s script based on Jean Itard’s Mémoires et rapport sur Victor de l’Aveyron, this scientist’s account of his attempts to educate and “civilize” a boy who, discovered in 1798, had lived for years on his own in the wild. Truffaut himself plays Itard, and quite movingly he dedicates the film to his Antoine Doinel, Jean-Pierre Léaud.
     Some—such as those polled by the National Board of Review, which named Truffaut best director—take the film “straight,” as championing Itard’s rationalism. Surely, though, Truffaut is being ironical. After all, in directing The 400 Blows (1959), Truffaut as often followed impulsive Léaud as led him—and he certainly never imagined himself as taming Léaud. In crisp, austere black and white (Nestor Almendros cinematographed), Truffaut’s “composed” and neoclassical film reflects the civilized world into which young “Victor” is being trained behaviorally to fit. The Romanticism in Truffaut’s personality addresses Itard’s mission with poignant ambivalence. Repeatedly, however hard he tries to please and “progress” (following his initial full-blown resistance), “Victor” is shown—for instance, standing at the window inside the ground floor of Itard’s country home—as hankering for his former life, no matter its dangers and lack of comforts. The boy’s ambivalence in his new life matches Truffaut’s, but Itard possesses a different mind.
     “Victor,” the wild boy of Aveyron, seems at the end poised in the direction of possibility, in particular, all that education promises. He embodies, then, the “great expectations” of the age that his mentor, Itard, represents.

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