Sunday, April 25, 2010
Id vs. Super-ego: Truffaut's THE WILD CHILD
In desperate attempts for us young students to evoke clarity in our essay writing, my elementary school teachers would frequently use the analogy, "If aliens were to read your paper and knew absolutely nothing about (fill in blank noun/verb here), how would you explain this to them?" I don't know about extraterrestrial life, but I know that if aliens were to come to Earth and one film would be shown to reveal what sociologically makes us human beings, Francois Truffaut's The Wild Child would do exactly that, because its very story is about an alien who finds himself integrated into human society.
The alien in question is a feral child found in the Aveyron forests, seemingly having been left to survive on his own devices his entire life. Dr. Itard (played by director Francois Truffaut in a role which mirrors his later acting performance in Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind with the same spiritual and human intellect), a doctor of deaf children, takes an interest in the child's case and attempts to socialize the child with the help of his housekeeper Madame Geurin. Little by little. the child learns to walk bipedally, put on shoes, eat properly with a fork and knife, learns the correct order of the alphabet, and is given the name Victor.
But the real journey is in learning how to emote. Last year, I took a sociology class (my first despite being a psychology major) called "Self and Society" because I needed to fill my class schedule and it sounded interesting; it ended up being my favorite class of the semester. The accumulation of what I learned is that people learn how to emote by spending time with other people. How else would one know how to laugh at a joke? Or cry at times of sadness? There is something to be said for living as an anti-conformist and abhor the unspoken codes and rules of society which Edith Wharton wrote about, but severe isolation has its tolls on the human psyche. By showing Victor how humans behave in everyday social ways, Dr. Itard reveals morality and emotions. A real-life anecdote not seen in the film states that when Madame Guerin's husband died and she wept out of grief, Victor stopped what he was doing and consoled her.
While Truffaut doesn't mean to say that society is always in the right (scars on Victor's body hints at signs of abuse at the hands of others, making him not a genuine feral child but an abused, neglected victim who might have suffered a worse fate had he stayed with his family), Truffaut's filmography celebrated human relationships and interactions, be they romantic (as they often were with Truffaut, the man who loved women) or platonic. He knew that compassion is what made us human, and it's a privilege which is learned, not inherent.
To any aliens reading this (or English teachers of Christmas Past), I hope I have created a clear picture of why we're human--and why Francois Truffaut was one of the best of them all.