Directed by François Truffaut
With Jean-Pierre Cargol (Victor), François Truffaut (Dr. Jean Itard), Françoise Seigner (Mrs. Guérin)
In 1798, in Aveyron, a rural county in southwestern France, hunters chase down and eventually seize a naked child who behaves like a wild animal and certainly does not talk or react as an ordinary boy. This wild child is sent to Paris, in an institution looking after children born mute or/and deaf. This strange case is handled by a young doctor, Jean Itard, who grows convinced the boy may be educated and is not a natural-born idiot with no abilities and no future, and begs to differ with an older and more experienced colleague who expresses skepticism. Itard is authorized to bring the boy to his home, a country house in the vicinity of Paris, and to do whatever he deems fit to turn what has been a matter of wonder, excitement, and voyeurism for the French elite into a normal child of 12 (for this is the age the wild child is thought to have, with no certainty) with the help of his middle-aged housekeeper, Mrs. Guérin.
This is a true story, with some minor alterations compared to the historical record. The beautiful black and white period piece is based on the scientific writings of Itard as he records the daily life of the wild child, his evolution, the methods contrived and adjusted to deal with him, and the feelings of the doctor when faced with the results of his experiments and observations. Thoughts and words readily define the character Jean Itard: he first appears while reading aloud a newspaper report about the discovery of the kid and he later features in the film a quill in hand, writing the records that the film pointedly illustrates, but also sitting meditatively or pacing nervously in his study cum bedroom. At first incidental, his thoughts and words increasingly set the pace and the contents of the narration, which feels rather didactic.
What is at stake is indeed the possibility to teach anything to the wild child; the film is thus the case study of human education as it grapples with a dumb mind and works on the fly to get any result; this is a tough and constant effort to spark an awakening. Identification is cast as the key element to the exhausting process: recognizing a name, which produces one of the most beautiful shots of the film when the kid does react to the name of Victor, recognizing objects and habits, and more crucially, associating these names with written letters. The film precisely and honestly shows the ups and downs of this astonishing and exhausting teaching effort and the spontaneous, rash, even brutal, reactions of both the scholar and the wild child.
But the real victory lies beyond words. The prologue, centered on the hunt, shows the enfant sauvage as sheer motion smoothly melding into the wider forest life, a vital force belonging to the wild world, as wide compositions, taken from a high angle, display the gorgeous realm of nature where he has managed to survive and seems to be part of. By contrast, later scenes clearly picture him as a prisoner, in a stable or in the attic of the Parisian institution, or even in the study of Itard, with the walks around Itard’s house, a key element of his education, standing as happy moments when he can frolic freely in the wild.
One day, because Itard has refused to take him along him to go alone to his doctor, Victor runs away, looking for his teacher. For a few minutes, he is so quick to pick up his old habits of a savage, including theft of peasants’ animals and fear of the humans, that his narrative arc could actually make a U-turn. At the same time, Itard seems to acknowledge he has failed. But then Victor knocks at the window, signaling he wants to come back and to stay together with Itard. Victor no longer belongs to nature as he has found a home, with a kind of family. The tenderness his body language conveys leaves no doubt about this deeper, essential change, the acknowledgment he is part of the human society, and the film ends there the record of his strange life.
Education involves more than knowledge and more than passion, even if it is the driving force behind Itard’s relentless and diligent work. It is actually dependent on the faith the doctor can have in his patient, the educator in his pupil, the adult in his child. That François Truffaut chooses to play the part of Itard is significant. Just ten years after “Les quatre cents coups – The 400 Blows”, he spells out how relations with children should be built by turning the reconstruction of scientific and historical events into the simple and moving tale of an awakening, how a young mind whose body has clearly been mistreated and rejected of finds out what life and culture can offer, under the guidance of a stubborn, dedicated, and loving master.