In the last installment of me watching Truffaut films and then commenting on them, I spit vitriol over Mississippi Mermaid. The obvious bad film in the bunch, I seized upon it with a sinister smile on my face. At the time of the writing I had not seen his next film yet (sometimes I watch films in batches and I see several films at a time but the reviews do not come out for weeks afterward) and I was hoping against hope that his next film will redeem him in my eyes. He was on a progression that would assume this film to be worst than the one before it and I was about to give up on him and his potential. I am happy to report that he broke this progression with this picture of an ethnographic study made in late eighteen hundreds.
About a child who was found in the wild (as is evident by the title), he appears to be raised without any parents at all and lacked even the basic motor skills involved in being a person raised by society. He was more an animal that only cared about surviving and getting his next meal than the meaning of life. He seemed unable to hear and communicate in any intelligible way. At first he was used merely as an object of curiosity for the upper classes, abused and mistreated by his doctors. Then a man decided to take him away from the eye of the public and see if he could make this child’s life better by giving him the tools to speak and learn. He experimented with him trying out different techniques that he was researching at the time. But he didn’t just treat him as a scientific study, but as his child. He gave him love and a sense of belonging maybe not in the outside world but at least in his house. This was all based on one of the most revolutionary studies about deafness ever produced and the techniques that this man discovered by working with this child are still used today in order to help young deaf children develop their ability to learn.
But why did this story end up being so well told by Truffaut? On the surface it does not seem to be anything that Truffaut would be interested in. There are no hints of Hitchcockian suspense, Renoir’s commentary on the upper classes (except maybe at the beginning, but that is underplayed) or any overt references to film as a medium all of which we have seen from him in the past. It is also the first film that he appears in as a character. In fact he is one of the main characters, the doctor, observing this child who cannot speak or communicate in any intelligible way. Another aspect on why this film should not have worked is that is based on a very dry diary from the doctor’s point of view. Those things usually do not make for great source material because it is hard to inject any way to make the story engaging. Also it features a main character who cannot speak or express emotion but is played by a child who can do all of these things. Child actors are famous for not being very good at achieving out of the ordinary children. Just think of all those genius children shows and films. All of the child actors are super lame because they are not geniuses. But somehow all of these aspects do not deter from the film but make it refreshing and unique.
I think the reason behind why the film is so good is that Truffaut believed in the film. It was not a mere exercise for him like Mississippi Mermaid may have been but a story that took time to research, develop, and make his own. It is also because the film centers around a child. Truffaut works so well with children that it comes at no surprise that he got such a great performance out of the actor who played the wild child. In fact I kind of wish he would have used this actor as he grew up like he did with Jean-Pierre Leaud, he could have been a fantastic actor. But sadly he did not and the actor only had one other credit besides the Wild Child. Also Truffaut was such a good actor. I don’t think that he could probably express much range, but being an inquisitive doctor determined to make this child’s life better is jus tin his wheel house.
Truffaut is at his best when he makes small films detailing an event at a certain emotional distance. He is a storyteller. Sometimes a bad storyteller, but most of the time an ingenious one that I can’t help but love. I am back in your throws Truffaut. Don’t mess it up.