Young men insistent on their independence can push themselves to dire extremes — the need to prove burgeoning masculinity through self-sufficiency bringing misfortune and degradation. Whether through manual labour, military service or sex work, youths on the cusp of adulthood have the propensity to drive themselves to ruin by chasing an existence they have carved wholly on their own, unsupported by caregivers, friends or lovers. This bloody-minded aspiration is what drives the misadventures of 22-year-old Léo in Sauvage, Camille Vidal-Naquet’s debut film as director and writer.
Equipped with an impish smile, arrogant swagger and a desirably slim yet toned physique, Félix Maritaud as Léo embodies a classic human contradiction — the compulsion to stand alone versus the desperation for intimacy and love. He finds both and more in his work as a gay escort on the streets of a Paris that bristles with grimy texture and palpable danger.
Vidal-Naquet, incensed with the bold honesty of a first-time director, puts his wayward hero under an intensive, unflinching microscope for the full run of the piece. He repeatedly interrogates Léo’s ego through merciless long takes and rich close-ups that refuse to look away as the character strides and flails about town. Sauvage runs the full gamut in its episodic structure, as Léo moves between incidents which test the outer limits of his emotional intelligence and physical durability.
Sauvage opens playfully, with a supposed doctor’s appointment unfolding with a wink into something more absurd — the quirks and humour that can emerge in Léo’s line of work go acknowledged ahead of a deep dive into a series of increasingly nuanced and trying circumstances.
While Léo struts about before his fellow escorts with a bravado duly earned by his boyish good looks, his façade falls away behind the closed doors of his work. A particularly touching scene shared in bed with a much older man glows with deep, genuine affection and the understanding between two lonely souls that they need each other for the night. Maritaud’s performance is delicately calibrated to keep this gentle humanity consistently bubbling behind Léo’s eyes, only shyly emerging when he feels safe in moments like this.
As with most men who grow cold and hard in time, though, Léo’s softer tendencies are rebuffed and punished more often than they are capitulated. While he finds some solace in the kinder nights on the job, Léo’s heart lies with a fellow escort — the terse, muscular Ahd (Eric Bernard).
Léo pursues Ahd tentatively but openly, though he is repeatedly knocked back — Ahd sleeps with men for work, but appears to prefer women for pleasure and reacts to Léo’s advances with slurs and physical violence. Still, Ahd harbours a protective, almost paternal sentimentality for Léo and, in less fraught moments, offers up advice and even affection. Still, the anger with which Ahd meets Léo’s tenderness leads Léo to build higher and thicker walls around his honest self.
Commendably, Vidal-Naquet has not written Sauvage in a way that demonises sex work or those who practice it, as his steady hand always finds the peculiar joys it can bring in the company of the right john. But neither is the director in the business of denying the dehumanising physical and psychological harm that men like Léo open themselves up to in such a line of work.
Tracking the lead character’s downward trajectory towards vagrancy, later portions of the film shift gear to show what Léo will permit to be inflicted on his body in order to survive. A particularly difficult scene sees him poked and prodded like a scientific curio by a gay couple who disparage his withering frame and the stench of his unwashed body. Desperate for cash, he allows them to experiment with the malleability of his body using a sadistically oversized sex toy. Vidal-Naquet is careful never to allow the shock value of this sequence to tip over into sensationalism, with a tight focus on Léo’s face pulling close into the immense pain and desperation he must endure.
Léo is not only robbed of his personhood by the film’s tangible events — his name, only revealed in the closing credits, is never spoken aloud, and the story of how he found himself turning tricks on the streets of the French capital with no familial support goes completely untold. Even Léo himself shrugs it off when he meets with medical professionals whose attempts to understand his context and history are futile.
In spite of this, Vidal-Naquet’s hyperrealistic framing — trembling handheld cameras and washed-out, filthy colour palettes — is specifically engineered to power empathy for his protagonist. His work is matched beautifully by Maritaud, whose lead performance comes on the heels of a supporting turn in Robin Campillo’s vital, urgent BPM (Beats Per Minute), another French drama capturing uncertainty and struggle in young, gay communities.
Sauvage emerges in the context of BPM (Beats Per Minute) as a darker, grittier cousin. Both tell physically intimate stories, but where BPM (Beats Per Minute) brims with romance, anger and sheer joy, Sauvage has a harder edge and leaves more of a bitter taste. Both interject action beats using nightclub scenes that writhe and pulsate with animal energy and desire, but Sauvage dances to the beat of music more industrial and menacing.
This paranoia and futility seeps into the film’s veins, leaving Léo stuck in his toxic, contradictory mindset — at once helpless and autonomous as he descends into homelessness and sickness. He is offered lifelines that promise comfort, care and prosperity, but Vidal-Naquet sees to the heart of this lost boy, whose desperate, instinctive need to be a man pulls him violently away from any hope of a stable but codependent life, out into the wilderness of the city where he can risk everything for self-sufficiency.
Sauvage is, to that end, a complete and devastating portrait of a young man torn in two directions by a world that at once hates and loves him.
Rhys Handley (@RhysHandley2113) is a journalist and film writer from Yorkshire in England. Now based in London, he is the biggest Talking Heads fan who still hasn’t seen Stop Making Sense.