Nature, Humanity, and Modernity in François Truffaut’s
The Wild Child


By: Cameron A. Straughan

Truffauts’ the Wild Child brings to light two key points regarding the separation between nature and humanity, and what defines “humanity” or “modernity”. Firstly, the film emphasizes that social conditioning – being taught to conform to a structured society with rules and regulations – effectively diminishes the “nature” in/of each of us, increasing the gulf between natural environments and those we create. Secondly, the fact that Truffaut uses the film medium to illuminate the differences/tensions between nature and humanity and express “what is human” is quite telling. The film medium is very subjective in that viewers only see and hear what the director wants them to. Thus, the film demonstrates that definitions like nature, humanity, and modernity are completely in the eyes of the beholder and subject to personal tastes and backgrounds.

Early in the film, we see the wild child frighten a woman away and steal her fruit. Yet, the child obviously meant no harm. In fact, he was playfully somersaulting down a hill towards the woman. He regarded the theft as both a game and a necessity. There is not much evidence that he was unhappy there – in nature. Later, there is a telling shot of the child alone in a tree. This emphasized his isolation. He is rocking back and forth. This rocking is open to interpretation. Classic psychoanalysis may lead one to assume this is a fetal position brought on by fear. Yet, children also rock back and forth when they are excited or lost in their imaginations. Clearly, the quality of the child’s life in the forest (nature) is subject to personal opinion.

These nature scenes contrast directly with the scenes when the child is captured and lead around on a leash. The other children, oblivious to the strong bound with nature the wild child has, cruelly mock and taunt him. This scene emphasizes the chasm between children conditioned by society and those more in touch with nature.

When the child comes under study, it is determined that his “senses are in reverse” – smell being the strongest and hearing highly selective. This is symbolic of how the child is viewed solely by 18th century French society. The fact that the child is attracted to windows and water emphasizes his longing for the outdoors and nature (in fact, water becomes his reward whenever his conditioning is successful!). His attraction to mirrors is probably an affirmation of who he really is – content and confident with his ties to nature.

The film emphasizes two views of why the wild child is “abnormal” (by 18th century French standards, of course). One, the child was abnormal to begin with and was thus abandoned in the forest. Two, the child became abnormal upon abandonment. Ironically, both theories miss the point. The child is not “abnormal”. He is merely a product of nature – not 18th century French society that defines children and their development in entirely different terms.

During the examination of the child, Truffaut uses film technique to establish his idea of when the wild child has become “human”. He does so using the contracting iris effect. This is an old, obvious (even clichéd) technique that Truffaut probably used because of his knowledge of the history of film – being a former film critic. Here, he is forcing the viewer (leading them down the garden path) to realize the wild child’s change to humanity and modernity (“modern” by 18th century French standards). Truffaut uses the iris in several key scenes. In one, the child eats at a proper table using utensils. In another, the child is upset having spilt some milk (fear of reprisal has been instilled in him). Thus, Truffaut has effectively “helped” the viewer to come to the conclusion that a combination of social conditioning (manners), forced learning (i.e., language), and a concept of justice (rules, regulations, and resulting fear of punishment) are what makes the wild child “human”.

Truffaut’s conclusions come together nicely towards the end of the film. When the child escapes and returns to his old ways, he hides in a bush fearing repercussions from an approaching wagon. Truffaut, quite effectively, does not show us what is approaching the child – we only hear it – so we also feel the child’s fear. In the next scene, the child returns home. However, the one thing that made him return home is fear fear of repercussions. Ironically, the main thing he learnt from civilized society was justice and its processes. Accordingly, he knows that returning to nature will only put him at odds with the rest of society – possibly leading to his death. Enjoying nature is now only acceptable within the narrow confines of society. Immersing one’s self into it completely – being “at one with it” – will result in severe misunderstanding and ultimately some form of punishment. Nature is no longer freedom – it is a reward.

Thus, the child’s return to Dr. Itard’s home is not for want of joining civilized society, but a survival mechanism. His conditioning is nearly completed. It is quite telling when the maid leads the child upstairs, having assumed the classic role of the mother figure, and the child looks down (literally) on Dr. Itard, who has become the father figure.

Dr. Itard drolly says:

“Your lessons will start again tomorrow”, as if nothing had transpired. It is taken for granted that the conditioning is successful. The child’s “passion for order”, as Dr. Itard puts it early on in the film, is not a passion but a product of conditioning. The child has no choice.

Yet, the child has a rebellious look of indifference in this final scene that seems to say:

“Yeah, whatever – at least I’m not going to be killed.”

It is interesting to note that Truffaut uses the iris technique in this final scene, as the child is marched towards his bedroom. The cycle, brought about by the narrow confines of 18th century French society, is now complete. The child is a “human”.

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