Sauvage – Film Review by David Turpin
Directed by Camille Vidal-Naquet
Starring Félix Maritaud, Eric Bernard
The ‘rent boy movie’ is a populous, if not particularly distinguished, subgenre in gay cinema. Its high water-mark is probably Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho (1991) or Gregg Araki’s Mysterious Skin (2004) – both exquisite, dreamlike films that hover on the border of reality and unreality to draw us into the lives of sexual and social outsiders. Well-intentioned dramas like Johns (1996) and Twist (2003) were less affecting, while a myriad of others – Skin + Bone, Hustler White (both 1996) – dive into the subject primarily in search of titillation. More recently, Gaël Morel’s Notre Paradis (2011) was an occasionally striking, occasionally soapy reworking of Badlands, complete with a Beatrice Dalle cameo.
Camille Vidal-Naquet’s Sauvage, then, feels familiar in its contours, but drastically different – and better – in its specifics. Félix Maritaud stars as a young man (unnamed in the film, but identified as ‘Leo’ in the credits), who sells his body on the street, and his progress through a procession of clients – some tender, others decidedly not – gives the film something of the quality of a series of vignettes. The connecting thread that gives the film shape and direction is Leo’s seemingly inexhaustible capacity for love – both to give it, often to the wrong people; and to seek it, even when it is harshly withheld.
Informed by several years of research on Vidal-Naquet’s part, Sauavge feels true-to-life in its details, even as a surprisingly ‘dramatic’ undergirding gradually reveals itself. Much of the thrill of the film derives from the tension between these elements – the sense of a glimpse at other lives as they are truly lived, pushing and pulling against a remarkably direct, even melodramatic, appeal to the heartstrings. The degree to which one surrenders probably depends on one’s reaction to Leo himself, and whether one feels sympathy or frustration in the face of his seeming disregard for his own well-being. This correspondent must confess to finding it almost unbearably moving.
The film is also extremely frank, both in its matter-of-fact presentation of Maritaud’s body, and in its depiction of the various sexual predilections of Leo’s clients. Midway through is an encounter between Leo and a noxious couple that will surely be one of the most upsetting scenes of the year – not only for its depiction of abusive sex, but also for the way in which it reveals how the violent logic of consumer capitalism has thoroughly infected even ‘alternative lifestyles’, leading these men to believe they have an absolute entitlement to brutalise Leo’s body and spirit simply because they’ve promised him seventy euros.
However, for each sequence of humiliation, there seems to be another of exquisite tenderness – as when Leo, knowing no other way to respond to her kindness, embraces a doctor who is treating him. The scene recalls a haunting moment in Mary Harron’s underrated The Notorious Bettie Page (2005), in which pin-up girl Bettie, instructed by an acting tutor to ‘do nothing’, unselfconsciously begins to remove her clothes. It’s the reaction of a person whose relationship to their own body is different to what social convention dictates – it’s a moment of innocence emerging from a sordid world, that confronts us with how much the ‘sordid’ resides in the eye of the beholder.
All this being said, Sauvage is a textbook case of ‘your mileage may vary’. Not since Lars Von Trier’s Breaking the Waves (1996) has such an open-hearted character been so comprehensively kicked about on screen. The difference in Sauvage, however, is that neither Leo nor Maritaud feels like a sacrificial victim to an overarching worldview, in the way that Von Trier’s heroines often do. The character pulsates with interior life, and we are ultimately brought to understand how this life is shaped, not only by his circumstances, but by his autonomous choices – an idea conveyed in a remarkably graceful final shot.
In this sense, Sauvage’s closest relation is probably Agnes Varda’s Vagabond (1985), in which – infuriated as we may be by some of the central character’s choices – we must nevertheless accept them as her own. She is the protagonist in her own life, as much as she is the victim of her social standing. Similarly, Leo is both of these things simultaneously – and it is one of the most radical aspects of the film that it permits both identities to coexist without one cancelling the other out. This dual reading is supported immeasurably by Maritaud’s instinctive, deeply affecting performance, which is almost the whole show, in any case. It borders on the iconic.
Finally, there seems to be significance in the distributors’ choice to present Sauvage with its title untranslated. As much as the French word resembles its closest English relation (‘savage’), it translates more accurately as ‘wild’, in the sense that nature is wild (Cyril Collard’s 1992 film Les Nuits Sauvages played on similar connotations while dealing with superficially similar subject matter). The ‘wild’ is never beholden to our judgments; it pursues its own goals, and even at its most debased, it is illuminated by a kind of self-knowledge that seems inaccessible to the ‘civilised’ human. Maritaud’s performance has that luminescence and so – despite its occasional contrivances – does Vidal-Naquet’s film. It’s unmissable.