with "The Miracle Worker" at the Harvard Square Theatre tonight
ON LEARNING that Arthur Penn was already making a film of The Miracle Worker (which is, by the way, scrupulously to be avoided) Francois Truffaut abandoned the idea of adapting the original stage play and began looking for a similar property. He found one much better in the accounts of an early nineteenth century scientist, Dr. Itard, who tried to bring a boy living wild in the woods of Southern France back to civilization.
In writing the screenplay Truffaut showed unbelievable sensitivity to the way each event in the film would affect his audience. And in the film's realization, Truffaut's spare performance as Dr. Itard and the boy's bestial miming both work against every conventional means of melodramatic expression, so that in no case does the playing of a scene signal, "I am a piece of drama being played for emotion." It is rather the simple conditions of each situation that shape our emotional responses.
L'Enfant Sauvage is entirely narrative cinema, Where Godard's events reflect on their own significance in terms of film, Truffaut's effect on their significance in terms of human actions. The subject of L'Enfant Sauvage is the essential subject of all narrative films: human actions and what they mean.
Because it depends on what it shows instead of what it says explicitly, and because it leaves no action unreflected upon, Truffaut's film is a narrative working at its highest pitch. The bare conditions of each ongoing situation imply the themes to come, the themes through which we would view the next stop in the boy's education. For example, Dr. Itard's incessant note-taking, which we take to be a device of Truffaut's designed to support his voiceover narration, becomes in time a description of the doctor as an animal-that-writes, as we have been seeing the boy as a being-that-blinks-and-gapes. It is exactly this ability of Truffaut's script to reveal the several dimensions of every human action, to suggest several ways to look at every situation, that makes L'Enfant Sauvage the masterpiece it certainly is.
WE SEE THIS also in the way the film is shot, for Truffaut shows each being very simply and directly as an entity of passions and habits separate from all other entities. He consistently frames his subjects in the center of the shot, frequently underlining this centering with iris-shots and the inner frames of doors and windows. Thus the content of each frame prevents a single entity: the boy swinging alone in a tree (zoom slowly out to long shot, then iris in on him), a group of hunters crossing the field as in a period painting, the teacher and his pupil as a single relationship, Itard writing by his window, Itard and boy housekeeper who together immediately form a family grouping. Each shot presents a fact, a situation. The frame shows what people do. This is a perfectly narrative style.
Narrative, but through its reflexiveness, it suggests the most intricate ideas about human learning and behavior. If it didn't, its sentimental and naturalistic achievements would be for nothing. L'Enfant Sauvage is a film about education, about how people learn from each other how to act ("act" in every sense), and because every action Truffaut shows involves education, the film shows that in every relationship between people there is teaching and learning. And in every emotional bond there is simultaneously acquiescence and resistance, and oppression and improvement, and Truffaut refuses to make judgments one way or the other. Instead he lets our joy, at seeing the boy become more sensitive and more human, work against the pain the doctor inflicts on him to drive him from his "wild" state.
Moreover, the historical period of the film enriches the film's themes extraordinarily because of the richness of the period's ideas and their influence down to the present. An object so simple as an anatomical drawing of a head in the doctor's room expresses the most extraordinary scientific hopefulness, the confidence that man can be known rationally, at the same time that the proud attitude of the drawing's subject reflects on the doctor's personality and class position, and the candle placed before the drawing on the intelligence of the boy and the doctor. Like all the film's historical nuances, it is complex and piercing, qualities which rise to a peak in the film's ending.
AFTER THE DOCTOR has taught the boy the meaning of injustice- or perhaps reassured himself, by an "abominable" act, that the boy has a moral sense- the doctor goes for a ride from which the boy is excluded, leaving him in a high-angle shot which turns the house for the first time into an explicit prison, but a prison of a new kind, in the way that a family imprisons its children. At which point the drama, up to then narrowing its terms, re-establishes its extremes: the boy runs away to sleep in the woods, the doctor stands looking out of his window. But the terms apply to a changed situation: the boy, after sleeping in his clothes to yield an incredibly poignant composition, tries to steal a chicken and is furiously pursued by farmers, so that rather than returning to a home in the woods he is setting himself outside society. The context of the film's beginning, which found him a being able to live validly (perhaps "happily," perhaps not) without reference to society, and which saw society as just another state of being, has been replaced by a context in which social life is the only life possible, in which there are no more noble savages.
The boy returns home; but the doctor's interpretation of his return is an abuse of the boy's acquiescence in the social contract. "You are no longer a savage," he declares; "you are an extraordinary young man, of great expectations" (here Truffaut smiles slightly, perhaps at his literary joke, perhaps from the knowledge that the actual boy, contrary to the ending's implication, progressed no further in his learning). "Tomorrow we will begin our lessons again." The doctor's housekeeper, reacting to this brutal act of incomprehension on the doctor's part, leads the boy upstairs; and Truffaut irises in on the boy's face, leaving him, after the first great social injustice, precisely at the beginning of The Four Hundred Blows.