Writer and Director: Camille Vidal- Naquet
This French movie charting the life of a French hustler has already been a hit across most of the Western world, but returning for the MyFrenchFilmFestival ‘Cannes Special Edition‘, it’s a film that is worth revisiting. That is, of course, if you can bear to rewatch the graphic sex scenes, or relive the painful loneliness not just of the young sex-worker, but also of his clients. There are moments of romance – fleeting yet hopeful – but instead of these acting as a salve, they only throw salt into the hustler’s many wounds.
Indeed, the film starts off with a close up of the wounds that adorn the nameless protagonist (but called Léo in the publicity). A doctor studies the bruises on the side of Léo’s chest, while we can clearly see the cold sore hanging to the side of his lip, and the holes in his nose and ears where metal studs once rested. The doctor pulls down Léo’s shorts and massages him as if looking for swollen glands. Many gay films have pivotal scenes set in doctors’ offices, but director Camille Vidal-Naquet quickly pulls the rug from under our expectations.
Seemingly set in a time when sex- workers still walk the streets for trade, rather than advertising online, Léo solicits on a roadside, where prospective clients pull up beside him. He doesn’t work the patch alone – a rural lane, perhaps on the edge of the city – but with a group of men who all agree on set prices for sexual acts. They don’t want a young buck coming in undercutting everybody.
Léo gets on with most of the other sex-workers, but he remains distant from them. He says he likes men and doesn’t mind kissing the older johns that he goes home with. Other men proclaim that they are straight, that they just sleep with men for money not pleasure. By not kissing, these sex-workers can retain a semblance of heterosexuality. It’s one of these men, buff, confident and charming, that Léo falls for.
Of course, it’s a doomed relationship, and not ameliorated by the cocktails of drugs and drink that Léo takes to numb the hurt. With nowhere to live, he sleeps in parks or on sidewalks, wearing the same clothes and Adidas trainers. Two clients are disgusted by how dirty he is, but neither offers him the use of a bath or a shower. But as his heartbreak continues, it’s doubtful whether he would accept these slivers of kindness, his self-loathing making him bitter and nasty.
The desire for self-annihilation is a common theme in queer movies – perhaps best exemplified by another French film, Stranger By The Lake, where, at a gay pick-up beach, a man cruises a killer – and Vidal-Naquet makes the journey both sexy and violent. As Léo, Félix Maritaud is compelling, and like the men who pay for his services, it’s easy to want to care for him. The camera, too, loves him; it delights in his body, even when he is being abused by clients, and it catches his silhouette in a pulsing nightclub. Present in almost every shot, Maritaud gives an incredibly compassionate performance.
This is a film for the lost and lonely, and it will bring them little cheer, but loneliness does look beautiful amidst all the bodies on display, dancing, taking drugs or having sex. Sauvage is a dangerous film in that it makes this kind of life exciting and unrestricted, even as it uncovers the melancholy of such a rootless existence. And it’s this dangerous edge, as sharp as a blade, that makes this film such an uncomfortable success.