Leo is 22 and sells his body on the street for a bit of cash. The men come and go, and he stays right here – longing for love. He doesn’t know what the future will bring. He hits the road. His heart is pounding.
Director: Camille Vidal-Naquet
Writers: Camille Vidal-Naquet (screenplay), Camille Vidal-Naquet (dialogue)
Stars: Félix Maritaud, Eric Bernard, Nicolas Dibla
here have been any number of films about lonely men who fall in love with a prostitute, but Camille Vidal-Naquet’s raw and visceral “Sauvage / Wild” is the rare film about a prostitute who falls in love with another man. But Leo can’t afford to be stingy with his affections; he’s driven by an insatiable and undiscriminating desire for intimacy.
An untethered 22-year-old sex worker who lives on the streets of Strasbourg, and is ferally embodied by Félix Maritaud (who played a supporting role in the bracing “BPM”), Leo doesn’t care about money or moving up in the world, nor does he resent his clients the way that some of his fellow sex workers do. In fact, he seems to lack any natural ability to separate feeling from fucking, and he needs as much from his johns as his johns need from him. When Leo offers to spend the night in bed with a sad widower, his customer is surprised (and perhaps also a little suspicious). “Won’t you get bored?,” the old man asks. “No,” Leo replies, “because that’s what I want, too.” He just wants to be free. And he wants to be loved. And he wants to be free to be loved.
The title of Camille Vidal-Naquet’s intimate portrait of a 22-year-old gay male Strasbourg prostitute, Sauvage, immediately suggests something wild and feral. But as played with emotional nakedness and complete physical surrender by the remarkable Felix Maritaud, Leo also evokes the gentler, more Thoreauvian sense of the word — of a solitude divorced from social norms, expectations and material needs, an aspect amplified in the film’s haunting final image. The fact that Leo never lets go of his ability to give or receive love is part of the complexity of a character who keeps you watching even when the drama seems plotless and aimless.
Writer-director Vidal-Naquet acknowledges both Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke and Sandrine Bonnaire in Vagabond as key inspirations. But it’s the 1985 Agnes Varda classic in particular that informs his main character, whose background remains unexplored and whose choices prompt more questions than they provide answers.
The detached observational style and disregard for narrative conventions won’t be to everyone’s taste; nor will a graphic scene of sexual degradation. But the movie’s melancholy sensuality exerts a hold that should guarantee a niche in the queer cinema landscape.
The film opens with a bit of wryly amusing deception as a visit to a doctor’s office by Leo — whose name, like those of his fellow hustlers, is never mentioned — turns out to be something else entirely. But the discussion of bruises, stomach pains and other health issues foreshadows legitimate medical consultations to come as the reality of living trick-to-trick on the streets takes its toll on his 22-year-old body.
The droll opening also signals with a light touch the pic’s refreshingly frank attitude toward sex and nudity. The mix of intensity and innocence in Leo’s gaze suggests that while selling his body is obviously transactional, for him it’s also personal. Only late in the film, after a stinging disappointment, does he attempt to emulate his colleagues by adopting a toughness that excludes intimacy.
He works mostly on a quiet stretch of road running through a wooded area, where a band of male prostitutes ranging in age and ethnicity share turf equitably among the motorist clientele. Leo strikes up a flirtatious rapport with hunky Ahd (Eric Bernard), whose insistence that he’s merely gay-for-pay is evident when they tag-team to service a customer in a wheelchair. In this scene, too, Vidal-Naquet subverts expectations by establishing Leo as the more generous participant, with less boundaries about affection, but then making it surly, withholding Ahd who gets the full-night bonus.
Visceral interludes in a dance club show their sweaty, shirtless bodies in a different kind of physical exertion, though the nights almost invariably end in another hookup with lonely old men. Ahd has a semi-regular sugar daddy, and he encourages Leo to cultivate someone similar, telling him it’s the best possible outcome for guys like them. But Leo carries a serious torch for Ahd, refusing to accept that his feelings are not reciprocated.