The opening scene of Camille Vidal-Naquet’s debut feature is rather innocuous at first — a routine medical examination in a doctor’s office. The unnamed protagonist (described as Léo in the production notes) complains about stomach pains and a cough that won’t go away, but things take a surprising and altogether more explicit turn when the doctor starts to inspect parts of his patient’s body that don’t need inspecting.
It’s not long before we discover that Léo (Félix Maritaud) is a gay hustler working on the streets for money. However, Sauvage is far from the usual sob story that you might expect from an arthouse take on male prostitution. Just as the first scene subverts audience expectation, so too does the film as a whole.
Unlike most cinematic hustlers who long to escape a life of degradation, Léo takes pride in his work. Another prostitute called Ahd (Eric Bernard) disparages Léo after they share a session together — “It’s like you enjoy being a whore” — and it’s this unique approach to the material that helps set Sauvage apart from other films of its ilk.
Vidal-Naquet explained to Vulture that the life of a gay hustler is one of extremes: “There is this contrast where you can sleep on the ground, but 20 minutes later, you can be in a palace with an extremely rich client.” Either way, though, what connects these various experiences for Léo is his desire for love and companionship.
Clearly too invested in these fleeting encounters, the young hustler is often abused or rejected by clients and Ahd alike. It’s not all bad though. In one particularly beautiful scene halfway through, Léo tells an old widower that he wants “to spend the night in a boy’s arms,” and together, the pair share a touching embrace that staves off their loneliness for one extra night.
For the most part, Vidal-Naquet employs a detached observational style reminiscent of the Dardenne brothers. While it’s hardly revolutionary, this simple approach imbues the film with a melancholic quality that matches the inner world of Léo as he wanders the city in search of his next job and perhaps even a place to sleep off the streets.
Where Sauvage does stand out stylistically is in its frank queerness. Kinetic dance sequences in a nightclub evoke the strobe-lit scenes from BPM (Beats Per Minute), another gay French movie that also stars Maritaud, but the physicality on display is even more visceral here.
Vidal-Naquet’s lens is refreshingly explicit given the subject material yet still refuses to titillate, even with all of the bare male flesh on display. Whether the men involved are young and tattooed or old and disabled, every instance of nudity is scrutinized without judgment, much like the numerous depicted acts of sex. Loving, tender moments are shot with the same neutrality as those that dehumanize Léo, veering between longing embraces and risky sex play to reveal every facet of his life on the street.
Some audiences may struggle with one particular scene that takes place later on when two bored sadists treat Léo like cattle, inspecting every inch of his body before they force a huge sex toy into his anus. Even that pales in comparison to what we imagine might have happened during an encounter with another client who fetishizes torture, but this is the only time that Vidal-Naquet spares us the details, showing us just the bloody aftermath instead.
Unlike most films that tackle this subject, Sauvage is devoid of moralizing. The sex depicted throughout is neither treated as a hedonistic fantasy nor a dangerous perversion. Here, sex is just sex, but it’s still far from mindless, and a huge part of that is thanks to Maritaud, who throws himself into the role with such raw charisma that you can’t help but worry for him as well as the character he plays.
When a doctor tells the young hustler that he’s in “bad shape” for his age, you feel for both Léo and Maritaud. When Léo physically clings to the doctor, desperate to feel some kind of compassion, you again feel for them both, and when she asks him why he doesn’t want to change his life, you recoil as she does at the answer: “Why would I?”
Sex work isn’t inherently good or bad, and not everyone wants to be rescued from this life like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman. Rather than simply flipping this Hollywood narrative on its head, Vidal-Naquet instead strives to portray the reality of life as a gay hustler in all of its complexity, juxtaposing the cruel and the compassionate with a brutal authenticity rarely seen on screen.
Sauvage will be released in UK cinemas in February 2019 and US cinemas on April 10,2019