The Wild Child (The Film Desk, G)

film_wild-child_sm.jpgFrançois Truffaut the filmmaker is more suspicious of Jean Itard’s motives and successes. Unstated but ever-present is Itard’s professional ambition.







In 1797, an apparent feral child was captured in the woods near Aveyron, France. He was taken to the National Institute for the Deaf, where he had the good fortune to attract the attention of Jean Itard, a young physician working at the Institute. Itard took the boy, whom he named Victor, into his home and treated him as a sample of one in an ongoing series of experiments in human learning and language acquisition.

Itard’s journals are the primary source for François Truffaut’s 1970 film The Wild Child. This was a natural subject for Truffaut (who said it was his favorite film), centering as it does on his favorite concerns: young people growing up and interacting with societal institutions, which can either facilitate or interfere with their self-discovery and maturation. It’s quite different in look and feel from other films of the period, and hides its complexity under a surface simplicity.

Shot in black and white by Néstor Almendros, The Wild Child resembles a silent film in many ways. Scene transitions are often made with dissolves or irising, the soundtrack is purely instrumental (Vivaldi), and nothing is spoken for long stretches of the film. More information is provided through narration (mainly from Itard’s journals) than from interaction among the characters. The camera is consistently objective, often in extreme wide shots, as if it merely happened to be observing the action.

Truffaut plays Itard, a representative of the Age of Reason who never questions the benefits of civilization or regards Victor as anything other than an experimental subject. He is able to "civilize" the boy (brilliantly played by Jean-Pierre Cargol) in superficial aspects: Victor learns to wear clothing, communicate through signs and obey simple commands, although he apparently only learns to say and spell one word. Itard even takes credit for teaching Victor a sense of justice, after demonstrating through a cruel experiment that the boy understands the difference between fair and unfair behavior.

Truffaut the filmmaker is more suspicious of Itard’s motives and successes. Unstated but ever-present is Itard’s professional ambition. Victor offers a unique chance to perform experiments which could make his career. What Itard offers Victor in terms of education is less impressive when viewed by the objective camera; his accomplishments frequently seem little more than the tricks of a well-trained dog.

A scene near the end of the film demonstrates that Victor’s captivity has robbed him of the ability to survive on his own in the woods (which he had apparently managed for several years before his capture). It also reveals Itard’s essential heartlessness; when Victor runs away, Itard shows no emotion either at his loss or at his return, and the final shot of Victor’s calm and knowing gaze demonstrates that he understands more than the doctor ever will.

Feral children, including the "Wild Boy of Aveyron" as Victor was known, were of particular interest in the 18th century because they served as testing grounds for competing theories about the nature of human beings—are we blank slates upon which anything can be written, or do we have an innate nature independent of what we learn through education and socialization? The story was a natural subject for the 1970s as well, not only for the educational and philosophical issues it raises, but also for the clear parallels between Itard’s behavior toward Victor and the imperialist endeavors of the United States (and previously France) in Vietnam. Both concerns remain relevant today, although Iraq has replaced Vietnam and theories of neurodiversity and critical learning periods have broadened the debate about what is innate and what is learned in human behavior. | Sarah Boslaugh

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