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The title of Camille Vidal-Naquet’s intimate portrait of a 22-year-old gay male Strasbourg prostitute, Sauvage, immediately suggests something wild and feral. But as played with emotional nakedness and complete physical surrender by the remarkable Felix Maritaud, Leo also evokes the gentler, more Thoreauvian sense of the word — of a solitude divorced from social norms, expectations and material needs, an aspect amplified in the film’s haunting final image. The fact that Leo never lets go of his ability to give or receive love is part of the complexity of a character who keeps you watching even when the drama seems plotless and aimless.
Writer-director Vidal-Naquet acknowledges both Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke and Sandrine Bonnaire in Vagabond as key inspirations. But it’s the 1985 Agnes Varda classic in particular that informs his main character, whose background remains unexplored and whose choices prompt more questions than they provide answers.
The detached observational style and disregard for narrative conventions won’t be to everyone’s taste; nor will a graphic scene of sexual degradation. But the movie’s melancholy sensuality exerts a hold that should guarantee a niche in the queer cinema landscape.
The film opens with a bit of wryly amusing deception as a visit to a doctor’s office by Leo — whose name, like those of his fellow hustlers, is never mentioned — turns out to be something else entirely. But the discussion of bruises, stomach pains and other health issues foreshadows legitimate medical consultations to come as the reality of living trick-to-trick on the streets takes its toll on his 22-year-old body.
The droll opening also signals with a light touch the pic’s refreshingly frank attitude toward sex and nudity. The mix of intensity and innocence in Leo’s gaze suggests that while selling his body is obviously transactional, for him it’s also personal. Only late in the film, after a stinging disappointment, does he attempt to emulate his colleagues by adopting a toughness that excludes intimacy.
He works mostly on a quiet stretch of road running through a wooded area, where a band of male prostitutes ranging in age and ethnicity share turf equitably among the motorist clientele. Leo strikes up a flirtatious rapport with hunky Ahd (Eric Bernard), whose insistence that he’s merely gay-for-pay is evident when they tag-team to service a customer in a wheelchair. In this scene, too, Vidal-Naquet subverts expectations by establishing Leo as the more generous participant, with less boundaries about affection, but then making it surly, withholding Ahd who gets the full-night bonus.
Visceral interludes in a dance club show their sweaty, shirtless bodies in a different kind of physical exertion, though the nights almost invariably end in another hookup with lonely old men. Ahd has a semi-regular sugar daddy, and he encourages Leo to cultivate someone similar, telling him it’s the best possible outcome for guys like them. But Leo carries a serious torch for Ahd, refusing to accept that his feelings are not reciprocated.
The hustlers occasionally hang out in the woods by the airport, smoking meth or crack while watching planes take off. Escape is something Ahd actively seeks, but what’s interesting about Leo is that he doesn’t seem to know or want any other kind of life. He’s willing to take the physical punishment and occasional humiliation that come with his chosen form of freedom. When a doctor mentions a program to help him kick drugs, he simply asks, “Why?” And when another hustler (Nicolas Dibla), who actually is gay and perhaps represents the security of a somewhat stable boyfriend, offers him a cellphone, Leo responds with genuine puzzlement: “Who would I call?” Even his unfamiliarity with hygiene (he never once asks a john if he can take a shower) says a lot about his indifference to standard comforts, and the money he earns seems immaterial.
Maritaud — who had a secondary role in last year’s BPM (Beats Per Minute) — captures the ambiguities of the character with an attractive vulnerability that’s entirely without judgment or self-pity, even when Vidal-Naquet pushes him to the brink of martyrdom. A scene with a couple of bored, heavily pierced sadists who treat him like an animal is hard to watch, with use of a sex toy that’s anything but playful. Mercifully, an encounter with a well-heeled client into “blood and torture,” which has been telegraphed so insistently that it inevitably represents rock bottom for strung-out Leo, is played out offscreen, showing us only the grisly aftermath.
But for every turn of fate that promises to redirect or possibly cut short Leo’s future in this demi-monde where harshness and cruelty come with the territory, there’s surprising evidence that his fragility is essential to his resilience. A lovely scene where he instinctively reaches for the compassion of a female doctor (Marie Seux) is quite affecting.
Sauvage has its longueurs, at times seeming stuck in a circuitous groove with too little forward momentum. However, the movie is never banal. It’s a fully inhabited world that pulls us in, watching over Leo’s shoulder along with cinematographer Jacques Girault’s limber, Dardenne-style handheld camera as he leans toward protection or makes a mad dash to reclaim control over his life, no matter how transient. It’s not intended as a slight to say I liked the film less while watching than in the hours that followed, when Leo’s life on the margins continued to play out in my head.
Production companies: Le Films de la Croisade, La Voie Lactee
Cast: Felix Maritaud, Eric Bernard, Nicolas Dibla, Philippe Ohrel
Director-screenwriter: Camille Vidal-Naquet
Producers: Emmanuel Giraud, Marie-Sonne-Jensen
Director of photography: Jacques Girault
Production designer: Charlotte Casamitjana
Costume designer: Julie Angel
Music: Romain Trouillet
Editor: Elif Uluengin
Casting: Stephanie Doncker, Jonathan Schall, Lea Triboulet
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Critics Week)
Sales: Pyramide International
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