This week, Film Forum kicks off a François Truffaut retrospective through June 24 comprising all 21 of his feature films in new 35-mm. prints, as well as several of his shorts. Truffaut’s films, unlike, say, Godard’s or Chabrol’s or Louis Malle’s, are often revived in what remains of the art-house circuit. Still, the retrospective is a blessed movie event in these parched times, and at least one of the entries, a rarely shown English-language version of The Story of Adele H, shot alongside the French version, should prove newsworthy. (It screens June 16; call 727-8110 for a complete schedule.)
I recently looked again at The Wild Child (1970; screening May 18-19) after many years. It contains in microcosm the soul of Truffaut’s best art: the balance of rigor and sensuousness, the fiercely lyric intelligence, the passion to record the sacred depths of the human face. Truffaut plays the physician Jean Itard, who takes in and attempts to educate Victor, as he is named by Itard, a feral child of perhaps 10 or 11 found alone in the wilds of Aveyron in 1798. The film, based on an actual event, isn’t a Miracle Worker-style slam-bang case history; neither is it a Rousseauian fancy. It’s far more mysterious than that. Truffaut has such an animistic feeling for nature that the child’s wildness becomes his genius, his essence – and yet it must be sacrificed to the civilizing world if the boy is to survive.
Victor’s acculturation is double-edged; we understand, along with the doctor, that he must learn language, wear clothes, sleep in a bed, wash. But these necessities advance him into a world we already know is imperfect, hostile. (It is all Itard can do to keep Victor from being locked up in an asylum.) Truffaut isn’t a back-to-nature romantic, but the perfidy of the life Victor will inherit makes you want to hold him back from that life a little longer – even though you know you can’t. There is a melancholy triumphalism in a sequence such as the one in which Victor flees from Itard’s provincial estate and rushes into the tall grass during a heavy downpour, rocking back and forth in awe and celebration. It isn’t so much that Victor in this scene is closer to nature than his educators are; it’s that he’s closer to pure feeling. It’s what links him to Itard, who, in the process of teaching Victor the rudiments of language, looks at life as if for the first time, too. He sounds the same depths as Victor. Their communion becomes their shared passion.