Stories about lost children, idiot savants, and wild kids “rescued” from nature can’t help but be pathetic. Somehow we’re convinced, against all logic, that the noble savage is missing wonderful things by being deprived of the company of civilized people and, despite his or her appealing innocence, we vaguely suspect there’s something lacking in someone untouched by society.
The jungle boy in François Truffaut’s The Wild Child is “discovered” one summer day in 1798 by a woman picking berries in the woods near Aveyron in the South of France. Frightened by a dark shape in the bushes, she summons a hunting party of men with dogs and muskets, and they bring back alive a filthy, hairy, naked young man about ten or eleven years old (played by non-actor Jean-Pierre Cargol). The wild child, who communicates in grunts when he does so at all, is dragged to the local “deaf and dumb” institute (the kids there tease him) and falls under the influence of scientists, among them a Dr. Jean Itard, portrayed by Truffaut himself in a scenario adapted by him and Jean Gruault from Dr. Itard’s memoir. It’s a true story, as are all the most pathetic wild-child tales. Itard more or less adopts the boy and brings him to his country home, near a forest, for a combination scientific inquiry and indoctrination session that goes on for years.
Itard’s housekeeper Mme. Guérin (Françoise Seigner) names the wild boy Victor, and the balance of the film details the relationship between Victor and his doctor/benefactor, who maintains a strict discipline for this most undisciplined young man, in the spirit of the Age of Reason. Not only does Itard want to teach Victor to stand upright, wear clothes, and talk, he seeks to glimpse a moral sense in his unspoiled character — the ability to tell right from wrong and to feel guilt and shame. Poor Victor. He does eventually become more docile, but in times of stress takes solace in scampering through the trees and barking at the moon. Nature doesn’t quite capitulate to Nurture in his case.
The one human interest question we have is never answered: How did Victor come to be left alone in the forest in the first place? Truffaut evidently intended The Wild Child (1970) to pay tribute to the early days of film as well as to the glories of the French Enlightenment. Cinematographer Nestor Almendros’ gorgeous black-and-white images are composed in a montage D.W. Griffith would have recognized, and just to be sure we get the point, Truffaut ends more than one scene with an iris fade — in which the image fades down to a small circle, usually highlighting a significant object.
The director’s acting style is as formal and antiquated as Dr. Itard’s approach to his patient. Also on hand in one scene, as one of Itard’s colleagues, is veteran actor Jean Dasté, then a walking history of early-20th-century cinema, who played in some of the most influential French films of all time for Jean Renoir, Jacques Becker, and especially Jean Vigo — Dasté was one of the students in Zero for Conduct and the bridegroom in L’Atalante. The most curious aspect of L’enfant sauvage is the casting of Victor. Truffaut reportedly chose young Roma non-actor juvenile Jean-Pierre Cargol from a field of 2,500 hopefuls. Cargol only made one other film, Geoffrey Reeve’s 1974 Caravan to Vaccares, and we get the impression Truffaut spelled out each and every gesture in the same sort of detail that Itard imposed on Victor. Art imitates life, shades of Ishi: The Last Yahi, if not exactly Every Man for Himself and God Against All. At any rate, The Wild Child makes a heartfelt entry in Truffaut’s filmography, yet another story of an unwanted kid, created in the midst of the director’s ongoing Antoine Doinel series — it’s even dedicated to Jean-Pierre Léaud, the once and future M. Doinel.
The Wild Child re-release is being presented, not by Rialto, but by a new kid on the classic film reissue block, the Film Desk. Founded by New York programmer/curator Jacob Perlin, the Film Desk has already brought back Charlie Chaplin’s rarely seen 1947 drama Monsieur Verdoux and Philippe Garrel’s 1991 Euro-Baby-Boomer idyll, J’entends plus la guitare (I Can No Longer Hear the Guitar). East Bay resident Laura Truffaut, daughter of the late filmmaker, is scheduled to appear in person for the late afternoon and early evening shows of The Wild Child, Saturday, March 7 at Landmark’s Shattuck in Berkeley.
More obscure blasts from the past for jaded movie-holics. As an International Women’s Day treat, Carl Martin’s Film on Film Foundation screens two hard-to-find Ida Lupino movies — The Bigamist (1953) and Outrage (1950) — one night only, Sunday, March 8, at UC Berkeley’s Pacific Film Archive. Both films are directed by Ms. Lupino, the most conspicuous example of Hollywood-actress-turned-auteur, and true to Lupino’s standards, feature socially conscious scenarios about women in varying degrees of distress.
The Bigamist drags its all-star cast through soap-opera melodramatics of a very high order. Busy San Francisco traveling salesman Harry (Edmond O’Brien) adores his beautiful, talented wife Eve (radiant Joan Fontaine), but Eve can’t conceive offspring. On a trip to Los Angeles, Harry meets Phyllis (Lupino, world weary but hopeful), the only Caucasian waitress in a floundering Chinese restaurant, woos and marries her, then starts a second family even though he’s morally conflicted, a little bit. What a choice — Fontaine or Lupino. Double-dipper Harry gets tripped up by an investigator (kindly old Edmund Gwenn) from the adoption agency he and Eve apply to. Less a noir than a cautionary tale, The Bigamist (screenplay by Collier Young from a story by Larry Marcus and Lou Schor) refuses to blame Harry overly. He loves both women, that’s his problem. It screens at 7:30 p.m.
Slightly more noirish, but with a decided expressionistic tilt, is another meller, Outrage, only Lupino’s second effort behind the camera, from a screenplay she wrote with the aforementioned Young and Malvin Wald. Using montage F.W. Murnau or Fritz Lang would applaud, Lupino shows what happens when apple-cheeked, All-American girl Ann (Marla Powers) fails to pick up the warning signals emanating from the leering, facially scarred counter man (Jerry Paris) at the lunch wagon outside the factory where she clerks. One murky night she leaves the office late and he follows her with lust on his mind, amid high- and low-angle shots straight out of M and frantic cross-cutting. The rest is therapy. Note the social analysis offered by do-gooder Bruce (Tod Andrews) — “too many neuroses” going around. It shows at 9:15. For more info, go to: FilmonFilm.org