Jan. 9, 2008

The Wild Child (1970)
Grade: 71/100

Director: Francois Truffaut
Stars: Jean-Pierre Cargol, Francois Truffaut, Francoise Seigner

What it's about. Based on a true story, set in France, 1798. A pre-teenaged boy is found running wild, naked, and mute in the forest. He is captured, and after a useless stint at a deaf-mute school, is in effect adopted by Dr. Itard (director Francois Truffaut) and his housekeeper Guerin (Francoise Seigner). The wild child's mentors play good and bad cop, Guerin supplying love while Itard nearly continually instructs him.

By this time the urchin has acquired a name, Victor, and is gradually domesticated. Teaching the child to understand French, much less speak and read and write, proves difficult yet appears probable with time and patience.

How others will see it. Most American viewers will quickly turn from this subtitled black and white film. After all, it lacks hot-looking young actors in contrived, dramatic situations. But The Wild Child does have an audience in America: intellectuals, who, like Dr. Itard, believe that Victor can be successfully taught and integrated into society. Those who appreciate a good, thoughtful story will also be impressed.

How I felt about it. This is the French version of The Miracle Worker. The patient, sympathetic, educated, and determined teacher recognizes and realizes the potential within the handicapped, animal-like child. Helen Keller was deaf and blind. In a way, so is Victor, since he has had neither sight nor sound from another human within his living memory.

Love is necessary, but it isn't enough. Victor needs to receive love in order to bond emotionally with his new surrogate parents. But while love might help teach him the limits of acceptable behavior, it won't teach him the alphabet, let alone Newton's laws of motion. This creates minor conflict between Mommy Guerin and Daddy Itard, since the former is prone to coddle the child, while the latter expects him to eventually solve differential equations.

Most child actors exaggerate, but to Truffaut's credit, there's none of that here. This was the first screen role for Cargol, which is likely partly why he was chosen. Truffaut probably wanted to start from scratch, just as Itard did with Victor. Most viewers will admire Cargol's performance, and it is admittedly effective, especially when he has to tranform instantly from placid into an apopolectic fit. This happens several times, as Itard struggles to understand Victor's childhood limits of prolonged concentration and ability to absorb unfamiliar concepts.

Victor makes irregular but definite progress, but the credit goes to Itard, who in this film is a surrogate for France's idealism, social awareness, and advanced level of scientific ability. If France can take a wild boy and make him into an educated man, it is a source of national pride. Plus, it is the right thing to do, instead of placing him into an asylum for life. The viewer never learns how much progress Victor eventually makes. But he is undeniably far removed from the baboon-like animal he initially was.