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Abstract

This essay analyzes François Truffaut’s L’Enfant sauvage (The Wild Child, 1970) as an early representation of autism that metaphorizes the neurodiverse child as the colonial subject. The film takes place in 1798, only a decade after the French Revolution, and depicts the true events of the “wild boy of Aveyron,” a feral child found in the Southern French forest when he was twelve years old. Before the film’s production, Truffaut—who also plays the boy’s teacher, Dr. Jean-Marc Itard—collected articles and books on autism and viewed videos of autistic children to create his main character’s behavioral patterns. The film is thus an exceptionally early representation of autism in narrative film history. While several scholars have analyzed the film with this knowledge—and often through an autobiographical lens that uncritically celebrates the film’s auteur director—I merge the critical lenses of disability studies and postcolonial studies to examine it as an ableist "white savior" genre film.

Drawing on archival research and considering L’Enfant sauvage’s narrative and production contexts, I explore how the film evokes what Snyder and Mitchell term the “Eugenic Atlantic”—the historical moment when racial and disability eugenics dovetailed at the end of the eighteenth century. The film not only maintains that the boy should be “civilized” in its representation of Itard as the narrative’s hero, but it also conflates disability and race via the following production and formal choices: the casting of a Romani boy (Jean-Pierre Cargol) despite Truffaut’s knowledge that the historical “wild child” was white; and the use of long and iris fade-out shots that work to distance the audience from identifying with the autistic child, most notably in scenes where he connects with nature as he stims (uses repetitive motions to self-stimulate). In its representation of autism-as-savagery only a year after May ’68—a key moment in postcolonial French history—L’Enfant sauvage reveals some of the ways in which colonialism and ableism are mutually imbricated historical methods of normalization that span centuries.

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