Truffaut’s film is based on long-ago events. A “Wild Boy” was captured in 1798 in the French countryside and brought into Paris to be ogled. Was this smelly, howling being “the noble savage” that Jean-Jacques Rousseau had rhapsodized about? Dr. Itard rescued him from the urban mob and took the Wild Boy to his country estate to befriend him. But far more important for Itard was to study him and to civilize him. The Wild Boy, who was given the name Victor, would be less wild with Itard’s determined guidance. Soundly rejecting Rousseau, Itard would prove that rigorous education elevated humankind instead of corrupting us. The Wild Boy would ascend the chain of being if he could be taught to see and to hear instead of sniffing at the world, if he could sit at a table and eat with silverware. Victor had to be taught to speak, to read, to obey. Ultimately, he was to learn morality, a sense of justice.
A truly remarkable man, Itard published a simple-to-read 50-page tract, The Wild Boy of Aveyron, that’s a potent declaration of humanism at a historic time when charity barely was invented — it’s an amazing text! Truffaut’s movie stays close, in fact and spirit, to its source. The year 1798 is translated visually in black and white by Truffaut’s great cinematographer, Nestor Almendros, and shot in a classic style reminiscent of silent cinema. Most prominent, both for transitions and to frame the culture-shocked Wild Boy, is the free use of archaic “iris in” and “iris out,” a prevalent device in cinema through the 1920s. The extreme long shots of D.W. Griffith seem a source of visual inspiration. The tough-love dynamic between Itard and Victor must have been inspired by Arthur Penn’s The Miracle Worker (1962), by Annie Sullivan’s tug-of-war efforts to educate the obstinate, seemingly deaf-and-dumb Helen Keller.
Jean-Pierre Cargol, who plays the Wild Child, is fantastically protean, and he wins the audience’s heart as he transforms from wolf cub to a cuddly, clothed boy drinking water from a glass. But the performance that keeps the film from getting mushy is Truffaut’s as the restrained physician in a buttoned jacket and top hat whose impassive face never reveals how thrilled he is at the Wild Child’s transformation into Victor. Itard is kindly without ever being touchy-feely affectionate, the embodiment of the best of the Age of Reason.