Tuesday 29 April 2008

The Wild Child (1970)

In 1798, the wild child of the title was discovered in a French forest living like an animal and was named the Wild Boy of Aveyron. He was captured and after a few initial adventures, was quickly brought to the National Institute of the Deaf where a young medical student called Jean Marc Gaspard Itard took on the case and attempted to raise him at his own home. It was Itard who wrote a book about the boy in 1806 and which Fran├žois Truffaut used as the source material for his film, which he wrote, directed and starred in.

Unlike the various wild men of literature from Mowgli to Tarzan, the wild child, given the name of Victor, ran around naked as a jaybird and lived in a hole in the ground. He appeared to be deaf and mute, possibly retarded. He did not respond to language, he moved on all fours and foraged for food. He was also scarred many times and a modern surgeon, Serge Aroles, who has done a serious study of feral children throughout history suggests that most such cases are either frauds or misdiagnosed, and that in Victor's case his scars were probably the results of deliberate abuse rather than living wild in the forest.

There are two key questions raised and neither has been fully answered to this day. Firstly, was Victor a retarded child abandoned in the forest by his parents who quite possibly attempted to kill him in the process, or was he a perfectly normal child who merely did not develop certain skills because of his isolation during such a critical period of childhood. Secondly, if a child like Victor is normal but isolated during this crucial time, is it possible for him to learn those skills that he's been isolated from, such as speech and language?

Itard couldn't anwer the question in 1806 and Truffaut offers a very matter of fact translation to the screen that tells its story very well indeed but offers no answers whatsoever. It's fascinating viewing, especially through the admirable focus and lack of showboating from Truffaut, who deliberately lets his young lead take centre stage. Victor is played by Jean-Pierre Cargol, a thirteen year old who does his job so well that it's difficult to imagine that this is an actor. He only made one other film, the Alastair Maclean thriller Caravan to Vaccares, but this is enough to seal his reputation. This sort of role tends to either fail utterly for the actor or warrant Oscar attention. This is a rare exception of something in between, but then again it's a foreign language film.

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