Sauvage is the haunting story of a young male sex worker called Leo (Félix Maritaud) who seeks love on the harsh streets. This is a striking, powerful debut from director Camille Vidal-Naquet, who delivers a moving, tragic tale that captures our shared desire to feel wanted in this harsh, bleak world. The lead performance by Maritaud (who co-stared in 120 Beats per Minute) is remarkable, and his performance speaks volumes even though his character speaks very little dialogue.
Although, some may be wary of this film by its rather unglamorous depiction of sex work, it is worth seeking out, as this is very much a film that is about the power of love and the need to feel wanted by someone else.
Although Sauvage can be quite graphic in its depiction of sex, it manages to show the viewer that real pleasure comes from the smallest of gestures such, as a tender embrace or the simple act of a peck on the cheek. The sex scenes aren’t presented in an overtly perverse manner, but show us a side to people who are some how seeking meaning and a sense of belonging through sex. Leo is a complex character, who is torn between his job and his dignity, and there is a sense of this character being lost in the world, alone and isolated.
Sauvage is a film that could have been exploitive and melodramatic, but Vidal-Naquet’s direction and his script, helps keep the film grounded in a sense of realism. Events occur naturally, and more violent events occur off-screen, so we only see the after-math which makes for a devastating impact. The film’s ambiguous ending is refreshing, and leaves the viewer to come to their own conclusions.
The film opens with what appears to be Leo visiting a doctor for a check-up. However, things take a sudden and unexpected turn. There’s much amusement to be had here, and the film’s ability to subvert of expectations is a delight. We quickly find out that Leo is often reluctant to kiss his clients, stating that it has to come naturally. Leo is an old romantic at heart, and as the film develops he becomes both love-sick and actually physically ill which takes a toll on his body.
Leo works mostly on a quiet stretch of road running through a wooded area, where a band of male prostitutes ranging in age and ethnicity work this little strip. Sometimes, there are petty arguments about whether someone is charging too little for certain sex acts, but mostly the men seem to get along and respect each other.
Leo becomes attracted to the handsome Ahd (Eric Bernard), after they both service a customer in a wheelchair. However, Ahd states that he is simply a gay-for-hire and that he’s more into girls. Still, when Leo climbs into bed one morning, Ahd holds him in his arms and comforts him. There’s often a sense that Leo isn’t interested in sex, and is seeking comfort from others. In one rather touching scene, he goes back home with an elderly man who wishes someone to hold him too.
Ahd repeatedly tells Leo to find an older man who will take care of him, and that may come in the form of Claude (Philippe Ohrel). Leo seems reluctant to find a form of escape from this world, and when he visits an actual doctor (Marie Seux), who informs him that she can help him kick his drug habit, he replies back with “why?”.
Maritaud’s Leo is a vulnerable creature who suffers, but is never presented to us as just a mere victim. In one brutal scene, he is forced to carry out a degrading sexual act by two young clients who mock him by calling him names, commenting on his hygiene, and treating him roughly. Leo remains composed, until he’s outside on the street and breaks down. There’s a deep, overwhelming sense to the character of Leo who seems lost in this world.
His background is never disclosed to us, but little clues give us an indication of what might have occurred to lead him to this life (for example, it’s implied that he can’t read, and that his parents have disowned him). Maritaud performance keeps us intrigued, throughout the film even when some scenes become slightly too hard to handle.
Cinematographer Jacques Girault’s use of hand-held camera helps give the film a documentary appearance. When we first see Leo hustling, the camera is at a difference almost like a voyeur watching the young men from a distance. Shot on the city streets, with people walking by almost oblivious to the action taking place, helps reinforce this sense of realism. Music is used rather sparingly, with the sound often being diegetic, which again adds to the realism that the film is trying to present. Often, the film feels too real, and has a way of pulling the viewer into this gritty world.
Sauvage is a very strong debut film from a promising director, and with an electrifying performance from Félix Maritaud. Bold, and hard-hitting in places, this is a film which leaves a lasting impression. It is worth keeping an eye on both Camille Vidal-Naquet and Félix Maritaud, to see what they do next, as they are undeniably talented.