Thursday, May 24, 2012
The Wild Child
François Truffaut had, from his very first feature, his famous debut The 400 Blows, been very interested in childhood and the experiences of a child in a world governed by adult rules. The director's 1970 film The Wild Child returns to that theme and to the territory of childhood, albeit from a very different angle. Based on a true story, the film deals with a young feral boy (Jeanne-Pierre Cargol) who is discovered in the forest in 1798, running around naked, covered in dirt, fighting and biting and scratching like an animal when he's captured by some rural folk. The boy can't speak, has no understanding of language, and has apparently never experienced the socialization of being around other people. Totally isolated and wild, the boy, eventually dubbed Victor, is a case study for what humanity is like in a natural state, without the accoutrements of language and social behavior that society has created.
Dr. Jean Itard (Truffaut) hears of the boy and decides that he will take Victor into his own home, placing him in the care of his housekeeper Madame Guérin (Françoise Seigner) and trying to teach him language, trying to educate the boy and bring him into human society. It's another opportunity for Truffaut to study the rebellious spirit of a boy's resistance against societal rules: the film is dedicated to Truffaut's one-time child star Jean-Pierre Léaud, and one can easily see in Victor a trace of the same wild, anti-authoritarian qualities that Truffaut so admired in Léaud in The 400 Blows.
And yet The Wild Child possesses very little of those qualities. By this point, just over a decade after Truffaut's debut feature, the director who'd started out shooting rough and raw footage in the streets and decrying the "tradition of quality" cinema that had preceded the French New Wave, had himself been absorbed by that tradition, making films far more polished and conventional than one would have expected after his debut. In contrast to the unpredictable energy and enthusiasm of The 400 Blows, The Wild Child is somewhat dry and smooth, the sharp edges sanded away. Victor is a far wilder figure than Léaud's Antoine Doinel, but the film doesn't really do justice to his wildness, his unconventionality, his complete separation from human society. The result is a film of interesting ideas that's somewhat dull in its execution. Néstor Almendros' stark black-and-white cinematography is crisp and clear, but the film's more restrained tone clamps down on the poetic emotionalism of Truffaut's earlier portrait of uncouth childhood.
Most of the film is narrated by Truffaut's Dr. Itard, reading excerpts from his medical journals about the boy, which contributes to the clipped, clinical tone of this material. The film also moves at a very brisk pace, the long and arduous process of socializing this boy condensed to a highlight reel, complete with old-fashioned iris-in/iris-out effects to transition between scenes, a cutesy flourish that's completely at odds with the no-nonsense rapidity that otherwise characterizes the film. Truffaut makes the process of adapting this boy from a frenzied wild child into an at least superficially civilized kid seem like it happens quickly and incrementally, each new triumph of progress ticked off before moving on. Tellingly, he also cuts the story off before the sad conclusion of the real tale: in real life, Dr. Itard gave up on Victor soon after the events of this film are over, and Victor never progressed beyond the rudimentary fragments of language he's picked up by the end of the film. He spent the rest of his life in an institution, just as Itard's rival doctor had suggested at the beginning of this film. Truffaut elides any hint of this conclusion, choosing to end on a more ambiguous note, Victor having just returned from running away to resume his education with Itard. The ending hints that he could learn more, could actually become socialized and learn to speak, even if he still harbors a longing for the freedom he enjoyed in his former life.
That trace of melancholy about the loss of freedom is the film's strongest element, a cross-current to the unwarranted optimism implied by the ending. Cargol delivers a touching, raw performance, embodied entirely in his face, without recourse to any verbal expression other than a few grunts and a few hesitant words. He seems to long, viscerally and intensely, for the wilds of nature, and though he eventually accepts wearing clothes and eating with utensils and participating in Itard's language and alphabet games, he's still connected to nature. He'd rather stare out the window than watch his instructor. He'd rather run through the fields or stick his head out a carriage window like a dog in a car than play more of Itard's endless matching and memory games. One of the film's more provocative questions is the idea of whether the kid was actually better off not being discovered, if he was happier living wild and free without any attempt to fit in with a society that he'd never even known existed. It's at moments like this that Truffaut's poetic sensibility comes to the fore, in images of Victor running off through a large open field, escaping from the rules and restrictions of a world that he still doesn't fully understand, an image that strongly evokes the closing sequence of The 400 Blows, with Antoine Doinel escaping to the beach.
The Wild Child has periodic moments like this that reveal Truffaut's interest in this story and the ideas he wishes to explore through this wild boy's life. On the whole, however, it's a routine and undistinguished take on an inherently interesting subject, bolstered by its unique resonances with Truffaut's prior work. For a film that raises the question of whether its protagonist might have been better off living his life outside of society, it's a rather staid and conventional work that never truly does justice to the wildness at its core.