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In 1798, a feral boy is discovered outside the town of Aveyron, France. His origins are unknown, but a scar on his neck suggests that he was possibly stabbed by his parents when abandoned as a young child. Diagnosed as mentally impaired, he is relegated to an asylum. A young doctor named Jean Itard, who specializes in ear-nose-throat physiology and the education of deaf-mutes, becomes convinced that the boy has normal mental capacity, but that his development was hindered by lack of contact with society. He brings the boy home, names him Victor, and begins an arduous attempt at education over several years.
Francois Truffaut’s The Wild Child (1970) reflects the director’s lifelong fascination with childhood and his deep commitment to reforms in child-rearing. While his celebrated feature debut The Four Hundred Blows (1959) depicted a semi-fictionalized version of his own adolescence, for this film Truffaut turned to a widely-studied historical case that he encountered in a 1964 review of a book on feral children by Lucas Malson. That book has been translated into English under the title Wolf Children and the Problem of Human Nature and includes translations of Jean Itard’s two reports (from 1799 and 1806) on the wild boy of Aveyron.
Jean Itard (1774-1838) carried out his work against a background of recent philosophical and scientific debates about the relationship between human nature, the natural order and society, including the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and David Hume, and the taxonomy of Carl Linnaeus. In that respect, one of his goals in educating Victor was to promote his theory that “man is only what he is made to be by his circumstances.” Although his progress with Victor was ultimately limited--Victor learned to execute a few basic tasks but never learned fully how to speak--Itard’s observations contributed greatly to the education of deaf-mutes in general and even influenced the educational theories of Maria Montessori.
According to biographers Antoine de Baecque and Serge Toubiana, after Truffaut had decided to film the project and assigned the script to Jean Gruault, he viewed films such as Arthur Penn’s The Miracle Worker (1962), conducted further research on the education of deaf-mutes and even observed an actual autistic child. Some 2,500 boys were considered for the role of Victor. Truffaut finally decided on Jean-Pierre Cargol, who was of Romani (Gypsy) origin and was related to a noted guitarist. It is worth noting that Truffaut listed Cargol first in the credits as the ultimate gesture of respect.
For the role of the doctor Truffaut decided to cast himself, as he explained in a 1970 interview: “The Wild Child is a two-character film. It seemed to me that the essential job in this film was not to manage the action but to concern oneself with the child. I therefore wanted to play the role of Dr. Itard myself in order to deal with him myself and thus avoid going through an intermediary.” Admittedly, Truffaut’s performance is not the film’s strongest suit compared to Cargol or its luminous black-and-white cinematography (by Nestor Almendros) and scrupulous period detail. However, in retrospect he was probably correct in his intuition that he needed to play the doctor in order to elicit the best performance from Cargol.
After the film’s release, Alfred Hitchcock sent the following telegram to Truffaut: “I SAW THE WILD CHILD WHICH I FIND MAGNIFICENT PLEASE SEND ME AN AUTOGRAPH BY THE ACTOR WHO PLAYS THE DOCTOR HE IS TERRIFIC […]” Hitchcock knew very well, of course, “the actor who plays the doctor.”— James Steffen, Turner Classic Movies
Thu April 16, 2009, 7:00 & 9:00, Muenzinger Auditorium
France, 1970, French, B&W, 83 min, unrated, 35mm (1.66 : 1) • official site