Francois Truffaut’s The Wild Child is a truly remarkable movie that has never gotten the attention it deserves. And so I’m going to begin this post by saying that (a) it deserves a place in the Criterion Collection and (b) I hereby volunteer to write an essay introducing it. (Actually, my suspicion is that Criterion would’ve created such an edition a long time ago if they had been able to get the rights.)
The movie’s story is based on a historical event, the discovery of the so-called Wild Boy of Aveyron and the attempts of a physician named Jean Marc Itard — played in the movie by Truffaut himself — to educate him. One tiny, easily-missed element of Truffaut’s version of the story provides what I believe is the key that unlocks the whole narrative.
Occasionally Dr. Itard takes Victor (as he names the child) to visit some friends of his who live on a farm. We’re never told why, but the obvious suggestion would be that their rural life is for Victor a return to something like the open, free, “natural” life that he lived before he was discovered. Dr. Itard and his friend sit inside and play backgammon while — we see this sometimes through an open door — the friend’s child pushes Victor in a wheelbarrow.
But the key point is that Itard consistently refers to his friend as Citoyen — which reminds us, and is very much meant to remind us, that these events are unfolding in the aftermath of the French Revolution. That is to say, the Wild Boy was discovered within the country that had gone further than any other in ordering itself by the inexorable strictures of Reason. This, I think, is the primary source of Truffaut’s interest in the story. He is fascinated by the contrast between two models of ideal humanity: on the one hand, the Natural Man uncorrupted by society; and on the other hand, the Citoyen governed by pure Raison — reason understood as requiring the elimination of the church, the proposed redrawing of the departments of France into geometric forms, the renaming of the months and regularizing of the calendar, and so on. As Simon Schama has convincingly argued, “If one had to look for one indisputable story of transformation in the French Revolution, it would be the creation of the juridical entity of the citizen.”
(Not germane to this particular post, but it’s perhaps worth saying that the combination of this emphasis on the universal equality of citizens with the determination to overcome Nature with Reason helps explain the profound ambivalence of the Revolutionaries towards Rousseau: in many ways he lays the groundwork for the Revolutionaries’ political project while utterly repudiating their understanding of human nature.)
These two images are placed side by side, in fierce opposition to each other. And thus the most interesting character in the movie is not Victor — though he is fascinating, as played by the young Romani boy Jean-Pierre Cargol, who is compelling throughout — but rather Dr. Itard himself. Throughout the story the good physician is quietly torn between his desire to “transform” Victor into a rational man, a potential Citoyen, and his natural compassion. At times he treats Victor with a harshness that he hates to perform, but he does so anyway, because he believes that he is acting in accordance with the demands of reason. After all, the stakes for Victor are so very high. Schama again:
Suddenly, subjects were told they had become Citizens; an aggregate of subjects held in place by injustice and intimidation had become a Nation. From this new thing, this nation of citizens, justice, freedom and plenty could be not only expected but required. By the same token, should it not materialize, only those who had spurned their citizenship, or who were by their birth or unrepentant beliefs in capable of exercising, yet, could be held responsible. Before the promise of 1789 could be realized, then, it was necessary to root out Uncitizens.
Dr. Itard could not allow Victor to become, or rather to remain, an Uncitizen.
All his life Truffaut was fascinated by wayward children and outraged by the social structures devised to control them. He himself had always struggled in school and spent much of his adolescence bouncing between school and institutions for “troubled youth.” He dramatized his experiences in his first feature, The 400 Blows, and returned to such themes often in his later films. (In this post I mention Truffaut’s interest in a man named Fernand Deligny, who devised imaginative ways of aiding neurodivergent children. Truffaut had consulted with Deligny in making The 400 Blows and consulted him again when making The Wild Child.)
As Truffaut sees it, French society’s standard way of dealing with difficult children can be summed up in two words: Discipline and Punish. The whole strategy is one of negative reinforcement, and the most touching thing about Dr. Itard is that he is an immensely kind man who, thanks to his intellectual formation, has only those tools at his disposal. His own character — his own nature, we might say — is at odds with his professional commitments. As a physician he is a Skinnerian avant le lettre, believing that Victor can be turned into a rational man and potential Citoyen simply through operant conditioning. He doesn’t seem to realize that what Victor craves is affection. He loves to touch and to be touched. And while Dr. Itard does not by any means withhold such touch from him — he often holds his shoulders or embraces him — he does not realize how essential such physical affection is to Victor’s upbringing and improvement.
What is essential, for Dr. Itard, is to constrain Victor’s nature — to bring it, as it were, within a frame, and here we should notice how many scenes in the movie are framed by windows and doors. Sometimes we are on the outside looking in, and sometimes on the inside looking out. Sometimes the frames are multiple, especially when we consider that the cinematic image constitutes its own frame. There’s an extraordinary moment early on when the still-wild boy climbs a tree to escape some pursuers, and the camera, positioned at the height of the forest canopy, pulls back to show the boy in this vast unbounded wilderness. But when he is brought to Paris, and then to Dr. Itard’s house on the outskirts of Paris, he is surrounded by right angles that enclose small spaces.
(This distinction is powerfully dramatized through the magnificent photography of the great Nestor Almendros, who in the wilderness scenes gives us a world of light and shade captured fleetingly by a moving camera, while in Dr. Itard’s house all is still and lit with a Vermeer-like gentleness and evenness. This movie should be on anyone’s short list of masterworks of black-and-white cinematography.)
Near the end of the movie, Victor, frustrated by Dr. Itard’s rigid and incessant lessons in the rational order of language, runs away, and finds himself once more in a State of Nature. But, after a brief period of delighting in his freedom, he discovers, or rediscovers, that human life in the State of Nature is pretty much what Hobbes said it was: “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Victor struggles to find food: because he is now in a place that is at least sparsely populated, and perhaps because he has forgotten some of the skills that he had developed when living alone in the wild, he finds his primary option is theft — and theft is both difficult and dangerous. So eventually he returns to Dr. Itard.
Dr. Itard is thrilled to have him back and sees this return as a sign that his program is working, that Victor is becoming more rational. And so as Madame Guérin — the kindly housekeeper, who had already warned the doctor about his overly harsh methods — leads Victor up the stairs to get him a bath and a change of clothes, Dr. Itard cheerfully calls out to Victor, “We will resume our lessons tomorrow!” And in the very last shot of the movie, Victor looks back at his benefactor — or his jailer — with an utterly inscrutable expression on his face. You might perceive it as obedient, or sullen, or resentful, or even hateful. It’s impossible to say. Victor still cannot speak. But he surely knows he has given up his freedom, his wildness, for a civilized life. In a civilized world, he has safety, and cleanliness, and food, and even companionship and affection. These are all wonderful things, great achievements of the kind of social order that ultimately produces Citoyens. But he can’t seem ever to forget the very different world that he has left behind; nor can we. This finely-poised ambivalence is the essential achievement of a very great film.