Intimate French drama Sauvage states its impish intentions from its opening scene. In a droll reversal of what appears to be a doctor’s office visit, director Camille Vidal-Naquet draws attention to the realities of sexual health for promiscuous street dwellers — and then pulls the rug out from any moral solemnity with a knowing cackle. This is how we are introduced to the rough-and-tumble life of twentysomething Léo (Félix Maritaud), who solicits men with a group of male prostitutes on the lonely intersections near an airport. Vidal-Naquet actually spent three years researching the lives of these young men and interviewing prostitutes on an infamous Parisian road, encouraging him to make as honest a portrait of this lifestyle as possible.
Often what Vidal-Naquet depicts is brutal or dehumanising, but there’s a respectful distance throughout. And for all the harshness of Léo’s life, Vidal-Naquet is not afraid to make us laugh or depict the sweaty fun of his encounters. This playfulness may seem at odds with the film’s subject matter. On paper, it reads like a grim laundry list of degradation: homelessness, heavy drug abuse, mysterious coughs and bruises, sadistic sexual encounters, and physical assaults. In fact, this lightness serves to further highlight the director’s non-judgmental and open-ended approach to the material at hand.
Credit is due to actor Félix Maritaud, who took the Louis Roederer Foundation Rising Star award at Cannes Critics’ Week last year for his raw performance. Maritaud brings mysterious resolve to a character who seems perversely in conflict with his own well-being. Still, a counterpoint is provided by the enjoyment Léo gets from many of his sexual encounters, filmed with pulsing intensity by Vidal-Naquet.
There’s a remoteness to Léo that is difficult to parse. He openly seeks affection and struggles to draw the boundaries that most other male prostitutes around him insist on. He doesn’t make his clients shower before sex, he’ll kiss on the mouth, and he falls for an attractive but gruff fellow hustler named Ahd (Eric Bernard). This love is pointedly unrequited, more as a matter of practicality as anything: Ahd knows that the “best thing that can happen for boys like us” is an older, gentle patron with plenty of money to swoop in. Even when there’s potential for this to happen for Léo, he refuses it for the freedom and excitement of street life — risks be damned. This is a man almost congenitally incapable of caring for himself, who seems to relish his constant closeness to death, and probably knows he’s not long for the world. Other prostitutes in his orbit are healthier, better off, aware of dangers and limitations; Léo is not. Yet Vidal-Naquet films him with a tenderness in the spirit of observational documentary, keeping Sauvage mostly outside the realm of cautionary tale.