Mowgli from Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book is one of the best-known feral children in popular culture. Abandoned in the forest as an infant and brought up by wolves, Mowgli is a resourceful boy, learning to fend for himself with the help of Bagheera the panther and Baloo the bear. Mowgli continues to keep his links with the jungle even after he returns to the human fold, and moves comfortably between both worlds.
In real life, feral children have a horrible time adjusting to civilisation. One of the most powerful films on the subject is Francois Truffaut’s The Wild Child (1970), based on a real-life case and featuring a remarkable central performance by Jean-Pierre Cargol. Shot in black and white to best capture the story’s 18th-century setting, The Wild Child follows the efforts of physician Jean Marc Gaspard Itard and his housekeeper to educate a boy who has grown up in the wild and teach him to “look and listen”.
Initially placed in a school for the hearing and speech impaired, the boy is taken home by Itard (played by the director). Along with his remarkable housekeeper, Madame Guérin (Francoise Seigner), Itard begins the slow journey of teaching the boy, eventually named Victor, to stand upright, eat at a table, wear clothes, attune his ear to different kinds of sounds, and comprehend French.
Itard is following the textbook, but some of Victor’s discoveries of human ways are spontaneous, such the scene in which he is swirled around to his delight in a wheelbarrow by the son of one of Itard’s friends. The documentary-style movie, with a voiceover taken from Itard’s diaries, is set over a symbolic nine months. The rigour with which Truffaut approaches the subject over a crisp 75 minutes makes the film interesting not only to cinephiles, but also to educationists and researchers studying the development of motor skills and language in children.
Truffaut cast Cargol, a Roma boy, after seeing him at an annual pilgrimage. Cargol is now a musician.
Here is an audio documentary on the real “Victor of Ayeron.” He never learnt to speak, and was cared for by Madame Guérin until his death in 1828.