Sauvage/Wild: Vidal-Naquet’s Captivating Portrait of Gay Male Prostitute

A bold, honest character study of a gay male prostitute, Sauvage (Wild), Camille Vidal-Naquet’s striking debut, premiered in the Critics Week sidebar of the 2018 Cannes Film Fest, and is now released theatrically by Strand.

Our grade: A- (**** out of *****)

Played with conviction and abandon, Felix Maritaud shows the highs and the lows, the erotic and emotional, the risky and quiet aspects of a young hustler, whose lifestyle has made him hard and tough but he has never lost his vulnerability and need for genuine affection.

The narrative unfolds as sort of a road movie, depicting Leo as he goes about his sex work in the streets, in nightclubs, and the backwoods of Strasbourg.

Despite the particular locale, Sauvage suggests the more general and universal dimensions of a profession that has seldom been portrayed on screen with such frank, non-judgmental attitude.

Vidal-Naquet avoids the potential pitfalls of dealing with such a subject by offering a full-rounded portrait of a lifestyle that though involves constant search for clients (and competition with others of his kind) and accommodating their desires, it also includes moments of solitude terrible loneliness.

In the hands of another director, it could have been a severe, grim film, but Vidal-Naquet infuses his tale with wit, humor, and tenderness that compensate both the protagonist and the viewers.

Being young (he’s 22) means that he is at once inexperienced in the tricks of his trade as well as too vulnerable.  Leo is still hurt and offended when rejected by clients, and on occasion, he may expose too much of his inner self, expecting human connection that goes beyond the required physical contacts, which by nature are rather brief, shallow, and fleeting.

Leo is contrasted with his mate Ahd (Eric Bernard), who is more realistic and down to earth, knowing his place as a paid rent-boy, and treating sex as sheer work, doing exactly what is expected of him, without the extra-sincerity and emotional spontaneity that sometimes slips in in Leo’s interactions. That Leo is helplessly in love with Ahd only complicates matters as the latter’s rejections drive him into a desperate state of obsession and destruction.

Several critics have compared Sauvage to Agnes Varda’s 1985 film Vagabond, a portrait of a female nomad, beautifully played by the young Sandrine Bonnaire. And it’s worth noting that writer-director Vidal-Naquet explicitly acknowledges Sandrine Bonnaire in Vagabond  and Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke as pivotal inspirations on this feature.  Newman projected the same kind of primal, animalistic magnetism in that 1967 movie, not to mention the fact that he was stripped to his wait for most of the story.

Maritaud, who had a small part in last year’s AIDS chronicle BPM, is incredibly handsome, and he uses his physicality to an advantage in both the erotic and non-erotic scenes (he’s also naked or semi-naked when he is by himself). As interpreted by Maritaud, while Leo is aware of his sensual looks, and derives pleasure from physical surrender, he is not a narcissist, and ultimately what makes him a sympathetic character is his emotional nakedness

Unlike most Hollywood and TV movies about prostitution, there is no psychologism here, no effort to explain Leo’s lifestyle by drawing on his social class or depraved background.  The director refuses to provide reasons or motivations for Leo’s engagement in prostitution, instead offering a detached yet intimate portrait of a young man, who may be looking for love and understanding in the wrong places.

A word about the title:

Sauvage translates literally into Wild, yet the French word bears richer cultural connotations and ambiguities. Sauvage could be both desirable and negative,  erotic as well as behavioral attribute, sexually wild as well as nature boy.