On a summer day in 1798, a woman collecting mushrooms in a French forest is startled by what appears to be a large animal moving in the brush, grunting and sending leaves flying into the air. After she runs off, it reveals itself — not as the fearsome beast the woman imagined, but as a boy of eleven or twelve (Jean-Pierre Cargol), naked, long-haired, covered in filth and moving on all fours. Human though he is, he leads the life of a wild animal, and soon he’s captured like one, chased by dogs and smoked out of a hole in the ground by a group of hunters. Dubbed the Wild Boy of Aveyron, he becomes an object of curiosity to the public at large and the medical profession in particular. Because he’s unable to speak and has limited hearing — he turns around when a nut is cracked behind him but doesn’t react when a door slams — the boy is placed in an institution for the deaf, where tourists come to gawk at him and the other children abuse him. Appalled by these conditions, Dr. Jean Itard (François Truffaut) proposes moving the boy to his own home on the outskirts of Paris. There, with the help of his housekeeper, Madame Guérin (Françoise Seigner), he intends to educate him.
But educating the boy will be no easy task, not least of all because what little experience he’s had with other human beings has been entirely negative. Along with the scars from animal bites scattered around his body, Itard and a colleague, Professor Pinel (Jean Dasté), discover something much more disturbing: the mark of an old suture across his trachea, apparently made intentionally with a sharp instrument. “No doubt whoever abandoned him meant to kill him,” Pinel concludes. They reason that the boy was probably three or four years old at the time, as it would have been impossible for him to have survived if he were any younger, and that he could only have survived as long as he did by killing. Naturally enough, he reacts violently whenever he’s placed under restraint, whenever he feels threatened, even biting Itard on the hand the first time they meet. Inauspicious though this introduction is, Itard is determined to get through to the boy; in his opinion, “he’s just had the misfortune of spending, six, seven or eight years in the forest absolutely alone.”
Itard and Madame Guérin have to start at the very beginning with their young charge. Walking upright, eating with a spoon, wearing shoes — everything is new to him. “What fascinates me is that all the boy’s done since his arrival, he’s done for the first time,” Itard writes in his notes. Although his pupil is challenging, to say the least, and frequent setbacks cause the doctor to question the wisdom and usefulness of this grand experiment, they also manage to make remarkable progress together. Eventually, the boy starts to become sensitive to sounds, especially the letter “o.” Itard and Madame Guérin suggest names with “o” sounds to him, until he reacts to one: Victor.
Director François Truffaut’s 1970 film The Wild Child was based on the true story of Victor of Aveyron, as recorded by Dr. Jean Itard in two early nineteenth century reports on the case. Truffaut first encountered Itard’s work in 1964, when it was published as an appendix to Lucien Malson’s book Wild Children: Myth and Reality. Although he decided to adapt Itard’s reports into a film almost immediately, it would be another five years before he would start shooting, in part because his financial backers were reluctant to put money into a project with little apparent commercial appeal — all the more so because Truffaut wanted it in black and white. (Ironically, The Wild Child proved to be a sounder investment than its immediate predecessor, his 1969 film Mississippi Mermaid, shot in color and starring Jean-Paul Belmondo and Catherine Deneuve. “With a budget of 7.5 million francs, Mermaid lost 3.5, but The Wild Child, which cost a little less than 2 million, made 4,” he said in 1982.)
In the meantime, he conducted some research — reading a few books on deafness, watching medical films on autistic children, talking to an ear, nose and throat specialist — but tried not to overdo it. “I have always been scared that an excessive amount of background information would make me give up an idea, by making the subject seem too vast for me,” he admitted. He also prepared by screening other, non-documentary films: The Miracle Worker (1962) for its similarity of subject matter, and Diary of a Country Priest (1951), Summer with Monika (1953) and movies by D. W. Griffith and Carl Theodor Dreyer for stylistic inspiration.
For the role of Victor, he initially envisioned the character as “a child Nureyev” and considered hiring a young dancer, but he found the dancers he observed “too sweet.” He then decided to go the opposite route and choose an average boy, something like the children in his 1957 short Les Mistons. Assistant director Suzanne Schiffman discovered Jean-Pierre Cargol, a twelve-year-old Roma boy, on the streets of Montpellier, and out of all the candidates she interviewed and photographed — almost 2500 in total — he eventually won the part.
As for Itard, Truffaut wanted to cast an obscure actor, or even a non-actor, in the role in order to lend the film an air of authenticity; at last, he decided to play Itard himself. “I feel that if I had turned over the role of Dr. Itard to an actor this would have been, of all my films, the one that gave me the least satisfaction, because I would have had no more than a technical job. I would have been saying all day to some gentleman: ‘Now take the child, make him do that, lead him there,’ and that was what I wanted to do on my own,” he said in L’Avant-Scène du Cinéma in October of 1970, adding, “From this experience I don’t retain the impression of having played a role, but simply of having directed the film ‘in front of’ the camera and not ‘behind’ as usual.” (He felt that his stiffness suited the character, who was scientifically curious rather than sentimental.)
Like so many of Truffaut’s films, The Wild Child was deeply personal to him. Besides the fact that playing Itard made it easier for him to direct Cargol, he saw something of himself in the character, though he didn’t realize it right away. “Until The Wild Child, when I had had children in my films I identified with them, and here, for the first time, I identified with the adult, the father,” he told Radio-Canada in 1971. As such, he ended up dedicating the movie to Jean-Pierre Léaud, the star of his 1959 debut feature The 400 Blows, because it reminded him of their work together on that film, of how he had initiated the young actor into the world of cinema.
However, even if Truffaut did identify with Itard more than with Victor, it’s clear that he recognized himself in the wild child as well. There’s a telling scene early on in which Pinel asserts that Victor must have been left for dead because he was “abnormal.” Itard, in contrast, thinks that the boy’s condition is solely the result of being isolated from humanity for years, and he contends that there are other reasons why he might have been abandoned: “Because he was illegitimate, in the way” — Truffaut’s own childhood in a nutshell. Born to an unwed teenage mother and an unknown father, he was initially placed in the care of a wet nurse and was later taken in by his grandmother. Upon his grandmother’s death, when he was ten years old, he went to live with his mother and stepfather, but he felt neglected and unwanted in their household. Before long, he drifted into juvenile delinquency and petty crime. (The heavily autobiographical The 400 Blows was based on this period in his life.) His saving grace was his all-consuming passion for film, and it was through this that he found a much-needed mentor and father figure in the form of critic André Bazin. As Truffaut said in 1970, according to author Annette Insdorf, “I think that Itard is André Bazin and the child Truffaut.”
To Truffaut, the story of The Wild Child was, at heart, a story about facing and overcoming a fundamental lack, closely connected to some of his earlier films: “In The 400 Blows I showed a child who lacks for love and who is growing up without tenderness. In Fahrenheit 451 (1966) it’s a grown man who lacks for books, that is, culture. With Victor of Aveyron, the ‘lack’ is even more deep-rooted: it is language itself. These three films are therefore based on a major frustration.”
He had language frustrations of his own, allowing him to identify even further with Victor. In a 1986 interview, Bernard Revon, co-writer of Truffaut’s Stolen Kisses (1968) and Bed and Board (1970), said, “He made The Wild Child because he couldn’t learn English. He even said so. He couldn’t manage. He had plenty of teachers. He took plenty of lessons. He had tapes in his car. But he just couldn’t learn English. He cried one day when he went to introduce — It was in Finland or somewhere. He went to introduce The Wild Child, and the students asked him, ‘Mr. Truffaut, why are you defending this story? You should have just left this child in nature.’ And François walked out in tears, outraged, cutting the discussion short, because he shared that point of view. He, too, was self-taught and didn’t have years of study.”
Released, as it was, in an era when embracing a more primitive or natural state was in vogue, the film received significant criticism of this sort, but Truffaut stood up for its central premise. “I don’t defend the particular society in which we are living, but I like civilization, and I believe in it,” he said. Elsewhere, after expressing his distaste for Michelangelo Antonioni’s films about the difficulty people have in communicating with one another, he explained, “What I value about The Wild Child is that all these new ‘received’ ideas are cleared away in order to get back to what is essential: it is wonderful to be able to make yourself understood, it is wonderful to stand upright, it is wonderful to walk in shoes. Elementary? That doesn’t bother me one bit.”
Still, enthusiastic though The Wild Child is about the importance of education and communication, it presents Victor’s situation as a highly complicated one. No matter where he goes or how much progress he makes, there’s always a sense that he’s caught between two worlds, never quite belonging anywhere. Before being abandoned, he was unwanted by his family; in the forest, he’s a human living like a wild beast; at the institution for the deaf, he’s an oddity, a freak show for sightseers and a target for abuse from the other boys; and even as he grows accustomed to life under Itard and Madame Guérin’s care, he continues to long for the unfettered existence he once led. One of the film’s most striking shots shows Victor standing by an open window while he drinks a glass of water, gazing out at fields and trees, “as if in this delectable moment this child of nature sought to reunite the two blessings to survive his loss of freedom,” Itard says. “A drink of pure water, the sight of sunlight on the countryside.”
The film’s music, by Antonio Vivaldi, reinforces this duality. Sometimes it’s lively and energetic, underlining the hard work and the joy of learning; at other times, it has a mournful, haunting quality, complemented by the black-and-white cinematography that gives The Wild Child a touch of the otherworldly. Truffaut noted in a 1981 interview that, due to the fact that the story took place almost two centuries earlier, he tended to frame shots through windows or doorways and position the camera at a distance, thereby making the film a sort of “representation” of the past. “I needed this drawing-back,” he said. “In fact, everything is seen as if it is taking place in a little theater.” He also made use of early cinematic techniques, accentuating both the historical setting and the theme of going back to the basics; the most obvious of these are the movie’s iris shots, for which director of photography Néstor Almendros obtained a device from the silent era.
After opening with an iris in, The Wild Child concludes with an iris out, an image apt to linger in the memory long afterwards. Near the end of the film, Itard has to visit another doctor and is unable to take Victor for their regular walk together, to the boy’s great disappointment. When Madame Guérin isn’t looking, Victor escapes. Once more, he’s in the natural world, totally free — but he no longer belongs there. This sequence reverses his behavior from the start of the film: instead of climbing to the top of a tall tree, he falls off a few feet up the trunk; instead of fighting off a hunting dog, he shies away from a dog that’s tied up in a yard. Before long, he returns to Itard’s home — his home now.
An interviewer described the ending as “unequivocally optimistic,” and Truffaut agreed. After all, Victor has learned to communicate, he’s grown intellectually and morally, and he’s established bonds with his caregivers. (He expresses his need for affection by placing the adults’ hands on his face, a touching gesture that simultaneously conveys his own affection for them.) However, the last shot undercuts Itard’s triumph a bit. After welcoming Victor home and sending him upstairs to bed, the doctor calls after him, “Tomorrow we’ll resume our lessons.” Victor turns his head sharply and stares at Itard, his expression inscrutable, but decidedly closer to a frown than to a smile. The iris encircles his unchanging countenance as the camera follows him up a few more steps, and then it closes.
Truffaut later regretted leaving The Wild Child so open-ended, which was why he made sure to include an epilogue on his next fact-based film, 1975’s The Story of Adèle H. The real Victor of Aveyron, the director explained in an interview, continued to reside with Madame Guérin until his death around age forty, leading “a domestic life”; Itard “lost interest in him when he was nineteen, having made as much progress as was possible.” It’s fitting, though, that the Victor of The Wild Child is left in a kind of limbo, a state of uncertainty — just as he is throughout the film.
De Baecque, Antoine, and Serge Toubiana. Truffaut: A Biography. Trans. Catherine Temerson. New York: Knopf, 1999.
Insdorf, Annette. François Truffaut. Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1994.
Le Berre, Carole. François Truffaut at Work. Trans. Bill Krohn. London: Phaidon, 2005.
Revon, Bernard. Interview. Working with François Truffaut. 1986. Criterion, 2003.
Truffaut by Truffaut. Ed. Dominique Rabourdin. Trans. Robert Erich Wolf. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1987.
Truffaut on Cinema. Ed. Anne Gillain. Trans. Alistair Fox. Bloomington: Indiana University, 2017.
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