Francois Truffaut directed this film in 1969, by that point his ninth full length film, but it has the ramshackle earnestness of a first feature, a direct and simple work that gets straight to its point, and doesn’t deviate once from the central plot thread. It is a grounded telling of the archetypal Tarzan story, with the exception that this story actually happened, with the film staged as an elaborate recreation as opposed to an adventure story, at times reciting word for word in voiceover or onscreen the diary entries of Jean Itard (played by Truffaut in his first acting role), who in 1798 took it upon himself to educate a young child (Jean Pierre Cargol) who was found alone in the woods, fending for himself.
It is only speculated how the boy (who later came to be called Victor), came to be in the woods. Itard feels as though he was he was left with his throat cut aged around three or four, but survived by covering himself in leaves, and then later learned to fend for himself. Truffaut does not insert a hasty flashback or resort to narrative gimmick to convey this; the doctor speculates it, we move on. This methodology underscores the whole film; the film takes place in its contained timeframe, with its two central characters, and there is very little incident to speak of outside of Itard teaching Victor about society. There is a moment of tension at the end, which is resolved so quickly as if to make a point of it. It is composed largely of wide shots, presenting the action like a live documentary.
I worry that written down, this could seem like a dry and clinical affair; it is in its method, but not in its effects. This is actually a very warm, wonderful film, without a bad bone in its body. Truffaut performs Itard as a pragmatic, but warm-hearted man, who becomes personally invested in Victor. He never loses sight of him as an anthropological experiment, but note the subtle revulsion in his voice at the suggestion from another doctor that the child should be left back in the woods.
Cargol’s performance, as the child, is a thing of quiet wonder. He exudes an uneasy physicality, darting across the frame, constantly moving his eyes, embodying filthiness (for the first passages of the film). His performance is further proof that there may not have been a better director of children than Truffaut. We never once during the film feel as though he was a domesticated child acting up for the camera; he seems genuinely feral. This is a necessity for this material; the child is the window through which we can look in and become emotionally involved.
Truffaut wrote in his diaries of being drawn to accounts of real-life events, and this was the first of two of his films that are staged as historical documents, the other being The Story of Adele H. The pair make an interesting case study of what happens when a director becomes more of an interpreter; taking events that have clearly been of interest to them, and then trying to spin them into a vision of their own. They stand apart from his other films as perhaps the most unique of his output. They are not flashy, or showy, or fixated on the limits of film form. Instead, they just… Are.
It’s a hard thing to describe if you’re not familiar with Truffaut, but I hope that those who are are nodding their heads with knowing certainty. He was a unique director in the cinema who made films that were popular and accessible, but not once compromised in the overall vision (perhaps “Love on the Run”, which Truffaut himself conceded to). And this is certainly an accessible film, even for children, that entertains and provokes thought, and has a fragile spellbinding magic. Within the parameters of the technique, we care deeply for this savage child, in a way that a fictional narrative may have never afforded.