Starring: Félix Maritaud, Eric Bernard, Nicolas Dibla, Philippe Ohrel
Director: Camille Vidal-Nacquet
From Mysterious Skin to Postcards From London, My Own Private Idaho to Tangerine, LGBT filmmakers have long been intrigued by the tragic and sometimes violent lives of sex workers. In Sauvage, the feature debut from French director Camille Vidal-Nacquet, rising star Félix Maritaud (120 BPM, Boys, Knife + Heart) plays the titular savage; a young man more at home on the streets than in the comfort of a home, who trusts only his animal instincts.
Léo (Maritaud) is 22 years old and homeless, living on the streets of Strasbourg. To feed his drug addiction, he sells his body for cash, waiting for customers with the other hustlers amongst whom there is a certain camaraderie. There are agreed prices for their services and they warn each other of dangerous clients. When he meets Ahd (Bernard), another hustler with whom he assists with a disabled client, he immediately falls for him, even though Ahd is straight. But as his health deteriorates and he clings onto any human kindness he can, he struggles to find the balance between his need for love and his need for freedom.
Maritaud is astonishing as Léo. He is enigmatic but vulnerable, compliant yet fierce with his eyes maintaining both stoicism and bashful immaturity. He has clearly been forced to grow up too quickly, but in the moments in which he can drop his stony façade, he is childlike and doe-eyed. The entire movie is a character portrait of the young man, but it deliberately makes no allusions toward his past. This is not the story of how a young man becomes a sex worker, but only his story on the streets.
While researching the movie, the director spent three years trailing local street hustlers and volunteering with a charity that helps them. The film is very tactful in its handling of sex work, refusing to condemn either the hustlers or their clients, but also highlighting the dangers sometimes associated with this work (there is one scene with a giant butt-plug that will live long in most viewers’ memories – and famously caused numerous walk-outs at Cannes).
What’s also striking are the moments of intimacy, in which Léo allows customers to hold him as he sleeps and willingly kisses them too, much to the distaste of his peers. But while he is portrayed as the Hustler With A Heart, it’s also clear that he’s not built for the world he’s living in. Ahd says that finding an old man to look after him is “the best people like us can get”, but when Léo does find that, can he actually live with his wings clipped? The relationship between Léo and Ahd is compelling in itself. While vocal in his insistence of his heterosexuality, he loves Léo and recognises his need for an older brother to look after him. This affectionate companionship comes as a warm surprise in Léo’s otherwise cold life.
There are moments when Léo is presented with opportunities that we know would help him, but when a very kindly and concerned doctor offers help and a way out, he replies blankly “why would I want to stop?” To him, this is his life and the idea of it changing is beyond his realm of possibility. This resigned acceptance of his fate is hard to stomach at times, but in the final moments of the film, we at least find a moment of clarity as we finally understand what this young free spirit needs.
Provocative, tender and moving, this is a profoundly human portrait of an occupation that society considers dehumanising. And while the film – and its title – regularly likens their behaviour to that of animals’, what we’re seeing is not exclusively animal behaviour. The sex is as human as Léo’s feelings, but with the young sex worker feeling most at home in the wooded roadsides of his “patch”, we are reminded that humanity, at its most base, is just a species of animal too.