François Truffaut, leading exponent of the French New Wave with such films as Les Quatre Cents Coups, returns to the theme of childhood and reworks the potent myth of the wild child familiar from the stories of Romulus and Remus and Caspar Hauser (also explored in Herzog's The Enigma of Caspar Hauser). Based on the true story of the Wild Boy of Aveyron, L'Enfant Sauvage plots the assimilation into society of a young 18th century French boy (Cargol, who gives a stunning perfomance), discovered living naked in the woods in the South of France and given over to the care of Dr Jean Itard (Truffaut) - the writings of whom are the basis for this account.
Named Victor, the boy is taken to an Institute for Deaf and Dumb children in Paris, where he becomes a curious attraction for the city's upper classes - "If I'd have known he was so beastly, I'd have brought the children," says one visitor. Dr Itard, dismayed at the boy's treatment, sees his potential for socialisation and bargains with the authorities to take him into his care - "It's useless to bring him from the forest and lock him up as if he were being punished for disappointing the Parisians". Itard takes him home to his housekeeper Madame Guérin. "I want to soften him up. What he'll lose in strength he'll gain in sensitivity."
The detail of the boy's journey from wild child to surrogate son of the doctor and his housekeeper is authentic and painstaking. His education is minutely observed, but far from being tedious, this is fascinating stuff in its own right as the boy learns to walk upright, use a knife and fork, to say the word for milk. Although the film is driven by the intriguing scientific account of Dr Itard (Truffaut's dominant, omniscient voiceover is entirely based on its contents), it is increasingly infused with a sense of the deepening of the bond between the doctor, his housekeeper and their charge. Itard's undoubtedly well-meaning attempts to round the edges of the boy's behaviour tread and frequently cross the fine line between helping the boy to survive in human society and ridding him of all the spontaneous, imaginative freedoms and impulses he had in his previous state. His central dilemma - rational science over paternal emotion - is beautifully, subtly expressed. Science itself, or that particular 18th century brand of rational behaviourism, is held up to considerable scrutiny.
It's impossible to escape the autobiographical overtones to the film: Truffaut's own difficult childhood is well documented and it's a theme that haunts much of his work. The Wild Child is a lyrical discourse on the nature of childhood, a time of spontaneity, freedom and imagination before the onset of adulthood and its inherent strictures (marked, in the film, by Victor's education). Given that the film was originally released in 1969, on the back of a generation's worth of social revolution, this notion echoes the contemporary concerns with individual spiritual and political freedom. For Truffaut, a man plagued by memories of a loveless childhood, the idealised state of the child's free existence, although lonely, must have been idyllic. The use of black and white film stock helps to not only root the film in its past, but adds to the romance of this idealised childhood state.