Saturday, September 11, 2010
Is Society Any Place for an Innocent?
By Iain Stott
The introduction of an innocent into society has, over the years, provided numerous filmmakers with a wealth of scope to satirize its less pleasant aspects. Hal Ashby’s majestic Being There (1979) uses a feeble-minded man-child to poke fun at political double-talk, pretentiousness, and general social arrogance. Similarly, Åke Sandgren’s little seen and unfairly maligned Dogme effort Truly Human/Et rigtigt menneske (2001) takes as its starting point the bringing into existence of the spirit of an aborted fetus, which had lived in the walls of its younger sister’s bedroom for several years, and then sets out into an uncaring Copenhagen society, revealing its loss of, and distrust of, innocence. In Werner Herzog's The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974), the film’s titular hero uses his innate logic to belittle the religion-tainted bourgeois society that he finds himself in. Whilst Rolf de Heer’s exuberantly bonkers Bad Boy Bubby (1993) uses its imprisoned, sexually abused protagonist to both rail against religion in all its variant, abhorrent forms and celebrate an abundance of bloody big knockers.
So it might come as something of a surprise that, given its satirical potential, François Truffaut’s The Wild Child, his adaptation of Jean Itard’s factual Victor de l'Aveyron (1806) is such a reverential one.
The Wild Child (L’enfant sauvage), given a U.S. release 40 years ago today, details the case of Victor, The Wild Boy of Aveyron (played incredibly well by Jean-Pierre Cargol, a young gypsy boy who completely convinces us of his wildness), a child of approximately 10 to 12 years of age, who was found living ferally in the woods near Saint-Sernin-sur-Rance in the south of France in 1798. The film opens, after a dedication to Jean-Pierre Leaud, his first juvenile anti-hero, with the boy in his natural habitat. He is a wild creature; naked and covered in mud, with long unkempt hair, he blusters about the woods hunched-over, ape like, with his hands seldom leaving the floor, as he forages for food — when he finds it, he shoves it into his mouth as quickly as he can, smearing it across his face in the process. He drinks, animal like, with his face pushed directly into the stream. In a quiet moment, he sits in a tree and gives his head a damn good scratch.
After being spotted by a local woman, he is hunted down by men with guns and dogs. The dogs chase him up a tree, but a branch breaks, sending him crashing to the floor. The dogs attack, but he gives as good as he gets, seriously injuring one, before scampering away. There’s no getting away from them, though; his days of freedom are over. He manages to get back to his den, but is soon smoked out. Wrapped in a blanket and tied with rope, he is carried towards civilization. Poor bugger!
But he’s not shown much in the way of kindness — not at first, at least. Mistakenly believing him to be deaf, the authorities send him to The National Institute for Deaf Mutes in Paris, where he is put on public display and generally mistreated. Luckily for him, though, Jean Itard (played compassionately if occasionally woodenly by Truffaut himself) takes an interest in him, believing him to be a perfect case for the studying of the effects of growing to adolescence without the influence of education or socialization. Although, that would require the boy to have been psychologically healthy to begin with, which is doubtful. A physical examination of the boy reveals dozens of scars, most seeming to have been acquired during his period living in the wilderness, but one — on his throat — appears to be man (knife) made. The doctors surmise that, perhaps on account of his inability to speak, his parents slit his throat and left him to die — but somehow he managed to survive and grow to adolescence. A number of modern commentators believe that he showed signs of autism, which, if true, could well account for his lack of speech and subsequent abandonment. But, what ever the case, it seems unlikely that he was normal to begin with, making Itard’s study flawed from the outset.
Nevertheless, after lobbying the relevant parties, the boy is entrusted to him and his housekeeper, Madame Guerin, for a period of 12 months. What follows — his attempts to civilise the boy — make up the majority of the film. And whilst most filmmakers (such as those mentioned earlier) would take this opportunity to satirize bourgeois social mores, or make their position on how they felt about a genuine free spirit being broken perfectly clear, Truffaut oversees the process remarkably leniently and even-handedly. In fact, it’s hard to ascertain (at first, at least) where he stands on the matter at all. For every scene of a civilizing victory for Itard there is also a shot of a wistful Victor staring longingly out of the window at the ever-present but mostly out of reach countryside, or a Vivaldi scored scene of his occasional country jaunts, or glimpses of his sitting in the courtyard in the rain, revelling in the sensual beauty of natural wetness. That said, the film certainly seems to take pleasure in his progress.
When they begin, he can barely stand up straight; he has the most selective of hearing; words are meaningless to him; and communication is all but impossible. Progress is slow but sure. He is taught how to wear clothes, to use table manners, to listen, to interact with others (though we are spared the sight of his toilet training, which must surely have been rather messy). The film’s most heart warming scene sees Victor, who has just been taught to spell the word milk (the one and only word that he learns to say), take it upon himself to take the relevant letters — L A I T — on a visit to a neighbour’s house, and use them to ask for his customary cup of the white stuff. Which may not sound like much, but it is the first time that Victor uses anything taught to him by Itard unprompted, and is the first real proof that he genuinely understands what he is being taught.
In another scene, Itard, worried that his charge, though progressing remarkably well, might not understand the moral consequences of his education, decides to inflict a little injustice onto him, to test his reactions. Until this point, whenever Victor would complete a task successfully, he would reward him with a drink of water. But on this occasion, despite Victor completing his task successfully, he, instead of rewarding him, punishes him. Much to Itard’s pleasure, though, Victor refuses to take his punishment, and fights back — thus proving that his decision-aking has a moral center.
Most revealingly, the film ends with Victor returning home to his teacher, after having ran away a couple of days previously. With Itard ill in bed, he had been deprived of his country walks. When none were forthcoming, he absconded into the wild green yonder; but, proving his complete domestication, he subsequently returned to the comforts of his new home. And it is at this point, the pinnacle of his progress, that Truffaut decides to end the film — and end it completely (there is no written coda, no further details of their lives). This, perhaps, is most revealing of Truffaut’s true position. Had the film gone further, or merely informed us of what happened next, we would have learned that Victor never progressed any further, never learnt to talk, never made friends, never entered society. By ending on such a positive, optimistic note, Truffaut reveals to us that maybe he was on Itard’s side all the time, after all — making him something of a bourgeois anomaly in a genre filled with counter-cultural rebellious types.