François Truffaut – L’Enfant Sauvage aka The Wild Child (1970)

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A movie like this can be viewed in two main ways: a human example of a scientific study (with on screen replications of the study, and a moral conclusion); or a lesson in learning for the participants (the wild child will learn how to spell his adopted name; his teacher — and we the audience — will learn how to feel!). Truffaut kind of merges both into something of unique value. It feels a little removed, and it becomes clear that that’s to prevent sentimentality. It’s unsentimental, but Truffaut is a quiet master; as is the case with David Lynch’s “The Elephant Man,” his auteur sensibilities shine through the story so that it fits in neatly with his catalogue — here we have another film with a naked boy’s bum, and young children being goofy and walking in packs. What the film is is an intense magnification of the troubles of child-rearing, emphasized twofold by Truffaut’s role in the film: he is the “mother” giving birth to the film; and he is the father raising this “wild child” within the film; good-natured, but without the inherent understanding of the boy that his housekeeper has (and without the inherent understanding Truffaut the director has of cinema).

Is it possible to feel bad watching a Truffaut film? And even better than making you feel good, he’s not being sneaky about it — instead of crass manipulation (and what kind of film could be more easily made manipulative than a one about boy left to survive in a forest and how he learns to be “human”?), he imbues each frame with soft, gentle love; so instead of jerking our emotions around via contrivance of the characters, he trusts us enough — and his own talent enough — to allow us to latch on to feeling his respect and love for cinema itself. (And he wisely keeps the film in mostly medium shots.) Nothing is really highlighted, but occasionally a particular image will be so fine that it’s hard not to notice it, like the one where the camera is raised above Victor as he slouches back to his room after being told he can’t accompany Truffaut to the doctor. (Or the sly visual gag where Truffaut is teaching Victor letters with the boy’s fingers, and he manages to basically flip the audience the bird — then has Truffaut swat his fingers with a cane.)

Truffaut isn’t interested in the kind of acting displays that normally accompany this kind of film; the acting is subdued and realistic (but then again, how would we ever know how a wild child would act?). The boy is limited to acting without words, and it’s a very good performance: whether he’s grinning wildly in a bath or swaying back and forth or opening his mouth as wide as it can go in an act of effrontery, it’s a performance that refuses to indicate how we should feel. There are some scenes that portray confusion so well but don’t rub our noses in it, like the one where he’s trying his hardest to follow instructions and eat his soup properly, but can’t help himself and sticks his face in the bowl. After Victor makes a craft and impresses Truffaut with it, Truffaut writes in his ongoing journal how joyful he is but to forgive his enthusiasm over such a small triumph — that’s the best way to describe how the film feels: a series of small triumphs of gentle subtlety.

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