Truffaut’s L’Enfant sauvage (The Wild Child, 1969): Evoking Autism & the Nascent “Eugenic Atlantic”
Ought: The Journal of Autistic Culture, Dec. 2019.
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 usually from an autobiographical point of view that uncritically celebrates the film’s auteur director—I merge the critical lenses of disability studies and postcolonial studies to examine it as a white savior 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.
Itard’s (Truffaut) patronizing touch echoes the iris shot–and medical gaze–that constructs Victor (Jean-Pierre Cargol) as abnormal in Truffaut’s L’enfant sauvage (1969) (Les Films du Carrosse)
The Frontier & American Pulp in the Zone: Marcel Carné’s Terrain vague (1960) as Postwar ‘Banlieue Film’
To appear in JCMS: Journal of Cinema & Media Studies, 2020
Scholars focus their analyses of the transcultural and postcolonial dimensions of the banlieue genre (films set in disadvantaged suburbs) on post-1980 cinema. I argue that we must return to early Fifth Republic France to reconsider Marcel Carné’s critically disparaged Terrain vague (The Wasteland, 1960), produced when U.S. cultural imperialism and the French-Algerian War converged in the metropole. Terrain vague illustrates the banlieue as a transnational and colonial space, presaging a dynamic that will become intensified in the genre’s later period: as the banlieue becomes increasingly racialized, it becomes more troublingly associated with the U.S. ghetto and aberrant virility.
Dan (Daniele Gaubert), a virile teenage girl, leads the gang in Carné’s Terrain vague (1960) (René Chateau Vidéo)
Research in Progress:
Transnational Feminism & Hijab as Ritual in Faiza Ambah’s Mariam (2015)
Submitted to Transnational Screens
This article explores Faiza Ambah’s film Mariam (France/Saudia Arabia/U.S./United Arab Emirates, 2015) using transnational feminist theories, which are careful to attend to interrelations among colonial, racist, and sexist discourses and practices. Mariam is set in the Parisian banlieue (marginalized suburbs) and represents a teenage Muslim-French girl’s experience during the passage of the 2004 law that banned ‘conspicuous’ religious symbols in French public/secular schools. The film not only subverts Islamophobic stereotypes, but it also offers us ways to think altogether differently about hijab—the Islamic practice of wearinga scarf to cover one’s hair. Drawing on Saba Mahmood’s study of the Islamic piety movement, I explore how Mariam’s (Oulaya Amamra) choice to wear the headscarf connects to the idea of hijab as reverent ritual and transformation of the self. Mariam’s careful mise-en-scene encourages us to view hijab as more than a mere identity marker, as many white Western feminists tend to construct it. The film’s formal elements connect to pivotal narrative moments, urging the non-believer to understand the ontology of religious reverence. Finally, I examine the film’s use of color and gendered performance to argue that the film illustrates the sexism at the heart of the anti-headscarf law.
Carceral Schools: Disciplining Delinquents into Citizens in U.S. & French Film
The recent rise of rightwing populism in Europe and the United States has legitimized a transatlantic era of racist, Islamophobic, and misogynistic violence. Via news media, we often see these attacks occur within the walls of the public (and thus ‘secular’) school—a space meant to assimilate students of different backgrounds into ideal national citizens. While several book-length studies have analyzed the production of national citizenship in high school films of France or the U.S., little work has been produced in a comparative context. Drawing on these national studies, Carceral Schools: Disciplining Delinquents into Citizens in U.S. & French Film uses transnational feminist theories to offer a cross-cultural, historical understanding of high school films from the post-WWII era through today. The role of the public school in educating and disciplining citizenries is crucial to our understanding of how nationalist ideologies have transformed since the postwar era. Tracking the cinematic representation of the high school, its authorities, and the racialized and gendered dangers “other” children symbolize across these nations illustrates a startling continuity: the transatlantic public secondary school acts as a prison-like space that contains or controls bodies that have been socially constructed as non-universal, e.g. marked as non-white, non-Christian, or otherwise inadequate for assimilation.
France and the U.S. share an ongoing history of mutual transatlantic cinephilia and a close partnership between film industries, especially in the 1950s and 1960s. Both nations also share a complex relationship to liberty, equality, and individualism—yet each nation defines these ideals quite differently. Unlike the U.S. multicultural model, which idealizes ‘diversity’ but produces segregated neighborhoods and schools, French Republican universalism seeks the cultural homogenization of French citizens, claiming to offer all citizens equal rights in a stable Republic. The French model has led, for example, to the outlawing of the Islamic headscarf in public schools. Attending to these two nations’ distinct relations to liberalism, imperialism, gun culture, racial segregation, and the prison industrial complex, Carceral Schools comparatively examines how delinquent characters in cinema are asked to perform desired nationalist values, such as whiteness, diversity, able-mindedness, heteronormativity, laïcité/secularism, and universalism. It also attends to how delinquent characters sometimes perform ‘undesirable’ transcultural identities such as “virilism”—a racialized gender expression characterized by aggression. Relatedly, these films depict students who resist state power by laying claim to difference by creating cultures of their own (e.g. religious or queer cultures). My focus on this tension between the carceral aspects and community-building potential of the public school offers readers potential sites of resistance. The book’s comparative, transnational feminist methodology historically situates the carceral space of the school and the mediated figure of the delinquent by examining how globalizing processes have changed the ways nationalisms function—nationalisms that imagine themselves to be post-colonial and post-racial.