The Wild Child (Francois Truffaut, 1970)

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents The Wild Child.

criterion logoDedicated to Jean-Pierre Leaud, his lead actor in The 400 Blows, François Truffaut’s The Wild Child adapts the true story of Victor of Aveyron, a feral child discovered in rural France in the late 18th century. Acclaimed cinematographer Néstor Almendros employs a near documentary style in his first collaboration with the filmmaker, who makes his acting debut as pioneering behavioral scientist Jean Marc Gaspard Itard.  Enlivened by the music of Vivaldi, Truffaut clinically investigates the dividing line between humankind and the animal world through his abiding belief in compassion and morality.  Part docudrama, part confessional, The Wild Child is an elegantly spare and poignant search for humanity and the self.

Disc Features:

  • New, restored 4K digital film transfer, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition
  • New video introduction by filmmakers Steven Spielberg and Wes Anderson
  • Audio commentary with Truffaut scholar Annette Insdorf and co-writer Jean Gruault
  • New video piece with Truffaut’s daughter Laura Truffaut recounting her observations on set during filming
  • BBC Radio 4 episode of Mind Changers, “Case Study: The Wild Boy of Aveyron”
  • Theatrical trailer
  • New English subtitle translation
  • PLUS:  A booklet featuring a new essay by Kent Jones and various correspondence on The Wild Child including letters by Truffaut and Alfred Hitchcock

Not much of a pitch is necessary to propose the inclusion of a François Truffaut film in the Criterion Collection – 7 titles already wear a wacky “C”.  And while this blog promotes itself as selecting different and (hopefully) unexpected titles for admittance into the Collection, The Wild Child already seems a likely candidate for Criterion spine numbering, particularly given that other MGM World Films DVDs have been or are slated for Criterion release.  Even further, The Wild Child recently toured over the last few years with a new 35 mm print.  Still, it is something of a unique picture and we can take some time away from films farther afield to attend to ones closer to achieving Criterion credibility, in this case Truffaut’s adaptation of the true story of Victor of Aveyron, a feral boy discovered in rural France in 1797 and who was cared for and socialized by pioneering French physician Jean Marc Gaspard Itard.

Truffaut creates in The Wild Child a film almost documentary in tone, cool and sedate, eschewing close-ups or visual flourishes for a nearly clinical approach to his subjects. Despite this, the film is not without obvious compassion for the challenged boy or his devoted mentor.  It’s no accident that Truffaut made his acting debut to play Itard or that he dedicated the film to Jean-Pierre Leaud, his young lead actor in The 400 Blows (1959).  Truffaut’s famously troubled childhood, rejected by his parents and passed between various homes and caregivers, became fodder for his premiere film focusing upon juvenile delinquency, however he had become a father himself by 1970 and The Wild Child brings Truffaut’s concerns over the welfare of neglected children, of which he had been one, full circle.  In this regard, The Wild Child is more than an influential film that touched filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock, Steven Spielberg, and Wes Anderson, but something of a restatement by a one-time enfant terrible, now older, wiser, and able to offer to others what had once been missing to him – empathy and mentorship.

Vargtimmen Wild ChildThere are various potential sources for cover artwork for The Wild Child, ranging from the poor efforts put forward in the film’s actual advertising, various screen grabs appropriated for revival posters and promotion, and the occassional minimalist approach so in fashion now.  Personally, I’ve always been a fan of the close-up image for Victor looking through a shattered window that I believe had once been used on a poster during the film’s initial release.  Naturally then, I was pleased to discover this fake cover made by Vargtimmen using the same image.  Aside from being generally captivating, the image elaborates on all the ideas and conflicts present in the film.  The dirty boy looking through the broken window conveys the mix of innocence, violence, and fragility that makes feral children so fascinating and contrasts notions of wildness against domesticity, of savagery and civilization, of nature and nurture, that motivates The Wild Child.  The image suggests intimacy by its closeness, however the sharp edges of the glass pane’s shards separates us from Victor and literalizes the risks associated with attempting to cross into or out of the civilized world.

Credits:  The influence of The Wild Child is apparent throughout the work of Wes Anderson (check out the use of Vivaldi and the relationship between Raleigh St. Clair and Dudley Heinsbergen in The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)), while Steven Spielberg has cited the film as a contributor to his development of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) (which also included Truffaut in an acting role).  The decision to include the Laura Truffaut special feature arose after reading Michael Guillen’s wonderful post recounting her comments at a screening of the film back in 2009.  Truffaut’s daughter spent time on set during her summer break from school and recalls her father’s collaboration with co-writer Jean Gruault, the influence of Néstor Almendros, and François’ choice of his young Romany lead actor, Jean-Pierre Cargol, from 2,500 applicants.  The Mind Changers episode can be heard at its page on the BBC Radio 4 website.  It’s very engaging, provides some perspective on Itard’s work and its important legacy, reconsiders the case with the benefit of hindsight and scientific progress, and even makes passing reference to Truffaut’s film.  Criterion favourite Kent Jones is a frequent contributor to the Collection when it comes to François Truffaut, making him an easy choice as an essayist.  Hitchcock famously sent Truffaut a telegram stating, “I SAW THE WILD CHILD WHICH I FIND MAGNIFICENT PLEASE SEND ME AN AUTOGRAPH BY THE ACTOR WHO PLAYS THE DOCTOR HE IS TERRIFIC …”

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