First-time French filmmaker Camille Vital-Naquet takes an offhanded, almost documentary style approach to the story of a young prostitute who is looking for love. Sauvage has been on the festival circuit this year, playing in Cannes, London, Chicago, Sao Paulo and Thessaloniki, to name a few. Among the film’s awards, lead actor Félix Maritaud won the Louis Roederer Foundation Rising Star Award at Cannes.
Maritaud is having a great year, following on from his memorable role in 120 BPM (Beats Per Minute) and the international hit Boys (Jonas). But he particularly shines in Sauvage, in which he has his first full-on leading role as Leo, a 22-year-old who works the park in Paris with the other rentboys. The difference is that Leo has nowhere to live, and really only wants to find a boyfriend. He has also fallen for his fellow escort Ahd (Eric Bernard), who violently insists that he’s straight. Meanwhile, Leo makes connections with his clients, such as a role-playing doctor (Lionel Riou) and a soulful widower (Jean-Pierre Bast). But his health is failing after so much time living in the streets while smoking crack and snorting meth. And if he could get over Ahd, he might be able to see that Claude (Philippe Ohrel) actually likes him, or that the outcast escort Muhal (Nicolas Dibla) might offer him a way out.
With a playful but honest tone, the film’s sex scenes are unusually explicit, but so well staged that they never feel gratuitous. Indeed, they let the audience into Leo’s life with a remarkable level of intimacy, offering a rare look at sexuality that is never moralistic. This isn’t a celebration of free-for-all sex, but the film also never demonises promiscuity. Writer-director Vital-Naquet is merely showing intimacy as an essential part of this young man’s life: sex is something he loves that also earns him a living. Tellingly, the script never tries to explain why or how he got into this life, but it feels authentic. Maritaud brings a superbly loose physicality to the role as a young man who takes his beautiful body for granted. So when he begins to look gaunt, it’s clear something has to give. And still the film remains far more focussed on his internal journey than a physical one.
This is a rare film that finds layers of comedy in most scenes and yet feels darkly emotional from start to finish. Some of the plot points may be a little forced, such as Leo’s relentless crush on Ahd or the foreboding johns who are nasty or downright freaky. But one of the most intensely involving scenes involves Leo’s visit to a young doctor (Marie Seux) who is so kind, understanding and helpful that he can’t help but give her a hug. In other words, Vital-Naquet understands sharply the need we have for physical contact in a wide variety of contexts, and by never shying away from what many people regard as extreme, Leo’s story becomes something that resonates with everyone in the audience.