A feral boy is captured and educated: He gets a scrubbed face, clothes, table manners, language, and finally a reason to rebel. Taking The 400 Blows to another level, François Truffaut’s 1970 feature considers a child who is literally wild, with the filmmaker himself starring as an 18th-century country scientist molding his charge in civilization’s image. Shot in neat black-and-white by Néstor Almendros, the historically based movie is measured out by Dr. Itard’s orderly account of the experiment, even as his momentous study finds an opaque mirror in the near-mute boy, never truly knowable. Shaggy Victor (Jean-Pierre Cargol) starts off not fierce but blindly wriggly, like a penned-up puppy, before assuming more control and becoming a piece of silent cinema under the reserved scientist’s direction. (His solitary learned word is emitted in an unforgettable squeak.) He’s both pure—communing with rainfall, unexpectedly showing affection—and something incomplete, a tension echoed in the film’s regimented path of discovery. All is fodder for Itard’s journal transcriptions (a remove later tweaked for comedy in Such a Gorgeous Kid Like Me). Rather than present a clichéd fall from grace, Truffaut elicits ambivalence by closely tracking the Enlightened scientist’s optimism; after the fascination, our inchoate sadness seeps in.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on November 5, 2008