Friday, September 21, 2012

Director Spotlight #10.9: Francois Truffaut's The Wild Child

Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. September’s director is consummate cinephile Francois Truffaut.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the movie in question.

Grade: 92 (A)

It’s appropriate that Francois Truffaut would eventually direct a film called The Wild Child. As a frustrated young boy, Truffaut rebelled against authority figures, be they parents, schoolteachers, or the police. Truffaut’s rebellion was less as a revolutionary and more as a misfit: quite simply, he had no place to belong to. Truffaut eventually found a place to belong- the movie world, where all of his troubles seemed more bearable- but that alienating effect never truly leaves a person. The Wild Child, then, is more than just another one of Truffaut’s stories of nature vs. society, but rather another self-portrait of sorts in the style of The 400 Blows.

A young boy of about 11 or 12 years (Jean-Pierre Cargol) is found in a French countryside forest in 1786. He is feral, unwashed, and seemingly deaf and dumb. Dr. Jean Itard (Truffaut in his first acting role) disagrees with his colleagues, however, when they argue that the boy is likely an idiot. Itard takes him to his countryside home, where he and his housekeeper Madame Guerin (Francoise Seigner) take care of the child, calling him “Victor”. Itard grooms Victor, teaches him basic language skills, and tries to prove that the boy has the intelligence and capability to join society.

Of all Truffaut’s films, The Wild Child is perhaps the most classical in terms of style. The film does not have an original score, but rather uses the music of Antonio Vivaldi, which gives the film a decidedly less romantic and swooning feeling from The 400 Blows, Jules and Jim, or Stolen Kisses. It’s a more studied and anthropological work. Futhermore, Truffaut’s greatest influences come less from Hitchcock and more from more classical European influences, most notably Jean Renoir, with his humanistic and even-handed look at society, and silent film, from which he borrows the iris-in/iris-out technique, which Truffaut uses as a way to symbolize Victor’s isolation from the world and his being in near-darkness.

The status of The Wild Child as a near-silent film has been overstated, but most of the lines in the film come from Truffaut’s voice-over (or at least that of a Truffaut sound-alike- that English sounds suspiciously fluent). Indeed, one might guess from watching the film that it was at latest made in the 1950s rather than in 1970- the emphasis on the striking black-and-white photography, use of shadows, and sparing use of sound design cannot be understated. Truffaut focuses on two major elements: the beauty of nature (as caught by cinematographer Nestor Almendros) and the interference of society, which is represented by the actions between Itard and Victor (and, to a lesser extent, Madame Guerin) as they try to understand each other. Action takes emphasis over words, but Truffaut is not merely playing pastiche here- this is as lively and playful as anything he’s ever done. Rather, he’s exploring classical styles as a way to tell new stories.

The opening sequence of the film is a masterpiece of shifting the audience’s allegiance throughout a given scene. Nature, as filmed by Truffaut and Almendros, is absolutely breathtaking. Truffaut introduces Cargol’s animalistic, unnamed child to the fray, and suddenly nature seems repulsive; when a passing woman notices the child, it’s hard not to feel her fear. Yet as the woman finds men to hunt the child and they sic dogs on the boy, the audience feels sympathy for the terrified child throughout the harrowing chase. Then the child kills the dog (which whimpers and cries in the most unnerving fashion), and we’re repelled again. And as the men smoke the boy out of a hiding place in order to catch him, we feel sympathy again. Society’s tools can be just as cruel and unforgiving as nature.

That feeling of shifting allegiances is essential to the film, as are the unpretentious performances of the feral Cargol (who sadly didn’t do much after this) and Truffaut, who has referred to his performance as a teacher less as a performance and more as “directing in front of the camera”, and he’s not wrong. Dealing with children on film is a sensitive issue- direct them too much, and their performance feels unnatural and forced. Direct them too little, and they’re blanks. Truffaut has shown gifts for working with children from The 400 Blows onward, and so is an ideal candidate to play a well-intentioned man who nevertheless is willing to go to extreme degrees to prove that the boy is intelligent.

As we meet Victor, he has been separated from society his whole life. He is uncommunicative, uncontrollable, dirty, and smelly. Even as he grows more accustomed to dealing with society, he doesn’t seem to understand his surroundings, and many believe him to be a deaf-mute idiot. His scars hint that he was likely abandoned after his parents attempted to murder him; Itard hypothesizes that he was a bastard child and that his muteness is from isolation rather than stupidity. He is, by nature, an outcast, but perhaps he can be rehabilitated.

Itard’s belief in the child is often inspiring- it’s telling that Truffaut had wanted to adapt The Miracle Worker before Arthur Penn took the project (Penn would go on to direct Bonnie and Clyde, which had originally been offered to Truffaut). Itard recalls both Anne Sullivan of The Miracle Worker and Frederick Treves of David Lynch’s The Elephant Man (all three are based on true stories): he is a compassionate intellectual who believes in the intelligence of his damaged, alienated pupil, and he uses positive encouragement to foster their sense of being and intelligence. Itard washes Victor and cuts his hair and nails to help him seem less like an animal and more like a human; he also trains him to put on clothes and use eating utensils rather than his hands. “What he loses in strength he gains in sensitivity”. Yet Itard does not seek blind obedience, but comprehensive learning. When Victor makes his first articulate sound (“lait”, or “milk”) it is a pleasurable response rather than a sign of understanding. Through perseverance, however, Itard teaches Victor over the course of seven months.

Itard isn’t a purely noble figure, however: he’s an understanding teacher, but often a frustrated one. He pushes Victor to learn faster than any normal child would ever have to, often to the point where Victor breaks down in angry tantrums. Sometimes Victor’s punishment for defiance is necessary, considering how Itard needs to integrate him into society, and almost desirable: it causes him to weep for the first time, a clear sign of humanity. Yet that punishment, locking him in a closet, is still painfully cruel. Later, to see if Victor knows between right and wrong, Itard punishes him for no reason- it’s a deeply sad sequence as Itard learns that Victor does have a clear concept of justice, but it’s painful to watch nonetheless. And what of Victor’s attempted escape near the end of the film- nature is still at its most beautiful, but the now more sensitive Victor cannot survive in the wild and is force to return. He’s “no longer a wild boy, but not yet a man”, as Itard espouses. As the film closes with an iris on a conflicted but more advanced Victor, it’s an ambivalent view on how we are to take this. Society has taken away what was most natural and beautiful about the child, but perhaps it was a necessary evil.

Truffaut’s sense of understanding here ties into that of The 400 Blows- Itard is a more sympathetic authority figure than Antoine Doinel’s parents. Part of this is because Truffaut is now older and more removed from his childhood anger. Part comes from Truffaut’s identification with Itard- Truffaut saw a kindred spirit in Jean-Pierre Leaud, and by casting the young actor in The 400 Blows, Truffaut likely saved Leaud from the more restless youth he experienced (it’s telling that Truffaut dedicated this film to Leaud). But Truffaut also identifies with Victor, with Itard serving as an Andre Bazin figure. Bazin took the angry young Truffaut under his wing, gave him film criticism as an outlet for his passion and frustration, and watched the boy flourish. Itard took a young boy out of the wild, gave him a new identity of his own, and saw him make astonishing progress. If The Wild Child is one of Truffaut’s finest films, it is because it shows the director and his humanistic best, understanding of all sides and full of warmth and compassion.

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