Whilst on half term I've had the opportunity to watch a couple of Truffaut films which I had never got round to seeing in the past. L'Enfant Sauvage (1969) is the story of a young wild boy who had lived his early years alone in woods in the Aveyron and whom Dr Jean Itard attempts to civilise in what is a kind of scientific experiment. Truffaut used Itard's scientific notes entitled Mémoire et Rapport sur Victor de l'Aveyron (1806) to construct a script with Jean Gruaut. Truffaut plays Dr Itard himself, saying that since he was working so closely with the child actor (Jean-Pierre Cargol) and since he did not want a famous actor to play the role, he might as well do it himself.
Truffaut acts the role in a dead-pan fashion, quite deliberately so, as he wished to emphasize the fact that Itard was acting as a scientist concerned above all with observation. Any physical warmth and love the boy receives comes from Itard's housekeeper Madame Guérin, played by Françoise Seignier. It is also characteristic of Truffaut to de-sentimentalise his movies, the result being that the viewer may find his films rather flat in tone. Truffaut said of this movie that the aim was not to scare or impress, but to tell a story.
The musical score, always important in a Truffaut film, is in this instance from Vivaldi, and is similarly un-melodramatic
This movie is very watchable indeed. Beautifully shot in black and white by Nestor Almendros, the early scenes of nature, with plenty of long distance shots, are reminiscent of the renoiresque images of Jules et Jim. The aim here, as in Jules et Jim, was to place the characters within their natural context. The sense of history and nostalgia is reinforced by the frequent iris shots to open and close scenes.
Once Victor has been placed with Itard in his home outside Paris, the film becomes a series of scenes in which Itard patiently attempts to teach Victor how to eat, wear clothes, associate objects with words, then letters and words with objects. Victor has no language skills and poor hearing. At the start of the film he moreorless walks on all fours.
In one telling scene Itard explores whether Victor has any moral sense, by seeing how he reacts to punishment. When Victor has a tantrum, Itard locks him in a cupboard. Truiffaut said of this scene: "Dans cette scène, qui est un duel entre l'enfant et le professeur, ce qui m'a le plus intéressé - plus que la révolte ou la non-révolte de l'enfant - c'est le fait que le professeur lui fasse du mal pour son bien. En a-t-il le droit? En a-t-on jamais le droit?" At the start of the film Victor never cries, by the end he does so and seems to have some sense of right and wrong.
Why did Truffaut make this movie? Well, Truffaut was fond of stories from real life, fond of filming children, and maybe here he saw some parallel with how he himself was trained in the cinema by his spiritual father André Bazin. Was Itard cruel to have taken Victor away from his natural home in the woods? Truffaut thinks not and may have felt that Itard, as well as acting as an interested scientist, was also fulfilling a moral duty in civilising the boy.
Jean-Pierre Cargol, who plays Victor, is quite outstanding in the role.
Interestingly Truffaut dedicates the film to his own spiritual son, Jean-Pierre Léaud, from Les 400 Coups.
(Quotation from: Le Cinéma selon François Truffaut by Anne Gillain (Flammarion, 1988))