In the last month, I’ve watched a romantic and moving depiction of love during the AIDS crisis, a mature and complex coming-of-age story set at a high school and now this, an erotic and somewhat depressing drama about a gay sex worker. Before that, it was a sweet romantic comedy and a giallo-infused ode to 70s cinema. What I’m trying to say is that gay cinema is alive and well in 2019 and I’m here for the wide array of cinematic voices on display.
Sauvage/Wild opens with Léo (Félix Maritaud) at an apparent doctor appointment. He has a faintly worrying cough, which the doctor at first seems to want to explore. As he gives him an exam, Léo takes off his shirt, the doctor examines an unknown scar, has him take off his pants and then proceeds to give him a handjob. Turns out the doctor isn’t a doctor but a government worker with a fantasy and Léo is a sex worker who fulfills his johns’ fantasies.
He’s mercurial like that, as he works a specific street with the rest of the hustlers, picking up johns to spend some time with. His days are a mix of hooking, dumpster-diving for food and scavenging whatever he can. We only get snippets of his life, but it’s obvious he is homeless and lives moment to moment. Everything about him is as vague and frustratingly ethereal as his past, which we only ever get hints about. All we know is that Léo oozes sex and he uses his money on crack to probably dampen the pain.
He has one pseudo-friend in Ahd (Eric Bernard), a fellow sex worker who proclaims to be gay4pay and is alternately tender and loving and a complete asshole to Léo. At one point he snidely asks why Léo is nice to his johns and why he kisses them, sneering, “it’s like you enjoy being a whore.” But he follows it up with a bit of truth, “that means you’ll never want to quit.” Ahd is only in this for as long as he has to be. It’s a job with an end goal of finding an old, vulnerable man who will take him under his wing. As he says, it’s the only good thing that can happen to people like them.
The truth is, as much as he’s a toxic friend, Ahd is right. Léo conflates physical interactions and intimacy with actual love. He’s a lovesick pup, looking for someone who will hold him and touch him in a caring, loving way. And so we follow a little slice of life, with Léo moving from john to john in hopes of finding something or someone real.
Sauvage/Wild is a hard watch at times, mostly thanks to Félix Maritaud’s uncompromising and unflinching portrayal. His body is constantly completely on display because, while he wants to be loved, he’s looked at as a piece of meat. A toy, to be played with. As we see sequences of his time with johns, writer/director Camille Vidal-Naquet showcases the peaks and valleys of his job. A hipster couple degrade him and use him basically for their visual entertainment (and don’t pay him). A disabled man in a wheelchair requires Léo and Ahd’s help getting him in bed. There’s also the john that everyone is fearful of called The Pianist, who is into torture. It doesn’t shy away from the painful existence people like Léo live with and it’s all filmed with a matter-of-factness that is alternately painful and fearful and sensual and real.
But then there’s the heartbreaking scene of an older man who, after an unsuccessful coupling, Léo asks if he’d just like to be held in Léo’s arms. The man asks if Léo would be bored and his response broke my heart: “I want to stay here, nice and calm. I want to spend the night in a guy’s arms and you’re that guy tonight. Will you?” The way he asks the old man if he would do Léo that favor made me cry. Later, it’s followed up with a (real) doctor’s visit where Léo embraces the woman who graciously holds him. It just broke my heart. It’s the power that Camille is able to mine in the performances. Even as it goes into some dark directions, the focus is entirely on Léo and his plight and his quest for something that always seems just out of reach.
Sauvage/Wild won’t be for everyone. I know a variety of people who didn’t connect with it. The story moves in some contrived directions and you can’t dismiss Chekhov’s Cough that you know will feature in the plot in some way. The ending might come across as too simple. But Félix’s performance grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. He’s had a few roles in the past, like in BPM and Knife+Heart, but this time all of the attention is on him. Félix carries the film on his slender shoulders and sells his heart in the same way Léo sells his body. Raw and poignant. Painful yet sensual. It left me in tears.