The true power of François Truffaut’s 1970 film L’Enfant Sauvage (The Wild Child) is two-fold. It functions primarily as a fascinating comment on nature versus nurture, science versus society and man vs. manners, but is also a personal valentine to cinema, including his own. It is no small coincidence that the opening titles dedicate the film to Jean-Pierre Léaud, the actor responsible for his multi-film portrayal of Truffaut’s on-screen alter-ego, Antoine Doinel, starting with The 400 Blows. Even without the direct reference to Truffaut’s directorial debut, the connection between the two films is as strong as the two sides of a single coin.
Adapted from the late 18th century writings of behavioural scientist Dr. Jean Itard, The Wild Child portrays Itard’s attempted re-education of Victor de l’Aveyron (the young, frantic-eyed Jean-Pierre Cargol), the titular wild child discovered in the forests of Aveyron who set the imaginations of late-1790s Paris alight. Freeing Victor from the confines of a crowded hospital for deaf and dumb children in which he’s constantly punished and attacked by the other patients (echoing the humiliating constraints of the military boarding school of The 400 Blows), Itard takes him to his countryside estate, attempting to ingrain proper manners and basic language skills in his newfound ward. Portrayed by Truffaut himself, Itard toes the line between reward and punishment, patience and cruelty. As can be expected, Itard learns as much from his student as de l’Aveyron does from him, but Truffaut’s treatment of the scenario is never cloying or trite — a double achievement given his steady and worthy performance in front of the camera.
Shot in gorgeous black-and-white and tipping its top hat even further to early cinema through its use of irises, The Wild Child also displays Truffaut’s entrance into the canon of classical-minded cinema, a movement in his mid-period films that some critics claim flies in opposition to his 1954 anti-establishment manifesto “A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema,” published in the pages of the Cahiers du Cinema magazine. While The Wild Child may lack some of the spark of The 400 Blows (though, admittedly, most films do), there are few auteur filmmakers with as identifiable an on-screen energy as Truffaut. Itard may run a rather stuffy and demanding household, but as a film, The Wild Child is far more fascinating and energetic than one would expect given the original source-material.