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The Lens: Another look at 'Wild Child'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 13, 2009 - Near the end of the 18th century, a young boy, probably around 12 years old, was discovered living in a forest in southern France. Though his presence wasn't entirely unknown in the area (he'd been rescued a few years earlier but escaped and returned to the wild after one week), his identity and the circumstances that left him to live in the woods were unknown.

Unable to speak (though not deaf), the boy, given the name Victor, was sent to the National Institute for the Deaf, where his case attracted the attention of Jean Itard, a young medical student with an interest in language development. Though Itard eventually considered his efforts to educate and civilize the boy a failure, his account of Victor's training (which can be read here ) became one of the most detailed accounts of an enfant sauvage at a time when attempts to define humanity and civility loomed large in Enlightenment discourse.

It's not difficult to see why the story of the Wild Boy of Aveyron attracted Francois Truffaut, whose masterful 1970 film "The Wild Child" is being given a well-deserved re-release. "The Wild Child" is the centerpiece of a trilogy of great films Truffaut made about childhood, a theoretical episode bookended by the semi-autobiographical "The 400 Blows" of 1959 and the celebratory "Small Change" of 1976.

In these three films, Truffaut is a passionate defender of the rights of children, showing how young people see and develop in the world and wondering why adults do such a poor job of understanding them.

As the first of these films showed, Truffaut was a wild child himself, a juvenile delinquent constantly at odds with his parents and in trouble with the law. He was saved from what might have become a wasted life by his love of movies and literature  and perhaps more importantly by the mentorship of the great film critic Andre Bazin , who rescued him from a jail sentence and encouraged him to become a film critic.

It was, I suspect, Truffaut's recognition of how much his own life had been changed by the intervention of a paternal influence that drew him to this story and, even more significantly, led him to cast himself in the central role of Dr. Itard, despite having no significant acting experience. (Though he stressed a practical reason for the casting – the need to interact closely with Jean-Pierre Cargol, the young boy playing Victor - he was aware of how risky his self-casting was and tried to keep it a secret until the film was ready to premiere).

By placing himself in the center of the drama as teacher and mentor, Truffaut personalized the concern and frustration that Itard experienced in his work, balancing the film in favor of the doctor's faith in science and communication rather than romanticizing the boy's rough-edged innocence.

For Itard, civilization meant teaching the unmannered boy the elements of language. For Truffaut, who would express an almost fetishistic love of language in writing in many of his best films, the word is tied inexorably to the image, so "The Wild Child" not only strips the spoken word down to its earliest, most basic processes but links it to the earliest filmmaking devices, using archaic silent-movie tropes such as irises or recreating the domestic-verite of the Lumieres to reclaim film language at its simplest. (But not everything in Truffaut's technique is archaic; a long shot where a frustrated Victor escapes from the doctor's house and returns to nature is one of the most exceptional uses of a zoom lens in all of cinema).

"The Wild Child" is nothing less than an attempt to look at every aspect of human and find its roots.

The British critic Gilbert Adair, writing about this , once said that "the first of something, of anything, is always mysteriously beautiful." Truffaut, who dedicated "The Wild Child" to the star of his own first film, Jean-Pierre Leaud (with whom he had a sometimes difficult father-son relationship), understood this when he wrote about the film in 1970:

"…this child grew up apart from civilization, so every thing he does in the film he is doing for the first time. When he agrees to lie down on a bed instead of on the ground, it is for the first time; when he puts on clothes, it is for the first time; when he eats at a table it is for the first time. He sneezes for the first time and sheds his first tears. In my opinion, each step forward means a tremendous piece of luck." Truffaut's film, as wide-eyed and open-minded as the earliest films ever made, is about the first of everything.

The Lens is the blog of Cinema St. Louis, hosted by the Beacon.

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