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‘Sauvage / Wild’ Explores the Danger (and Love) of Sex Work

A riveting portrait of a French hustler and his impossible object of desire from writer-director Camille Vidal-Naquet

Félix Maritaud, sauvage, french hustler

Félix Maritaud in 'Sauvage / Wild'

Strand Releases

You’re looking for real intimacy and you couldn’t pick a worse place to find it. Not if you’re the gay male hustler driving the plot of Sauvage/Wild, the raw and riveting debut feature from French writer-director Camille Vidal-Naquet.

“My name is whatever you want it to be,” this unnamed, unwashed wild child tells the tricks who use him as a piece of meat. He gets paid for it, after all. In interviews, Vidal-Naquet refers to this achingly vulnerable soul as Leo. And yet the homeless Leo, as played by the quietly devastating Félix Maritaud, feels compassion for his clients, young and old, violent and tender. He even kisses them, a taboo among sex workers. He’s drawn to men other hustlers shun, such as the disabled and the aged. But Leo, who’s 22 and possessed of the youth and good looks that keep him gainfully employed, doesn’t seek to be kept and protected by an older man. His extravagances are crack and tattoos. Otherwise, he lives according to his own definition of freedom, even if it means living off the streets. And he doesn’t want to change.

Vidal-Naquet never steps up to the pulpit to sermonize in Sauvage / Wild. His film is an accumulation of details that illuminate a life. The filmmaker developed his script by spending three years among hustlers in Paris. And his research shows. There are searing scenes of Leo on the job, where danger looms as Leo willingly suffers pain and humiliation. There are scenes at strobe-lit dance clubs — stunningly shot by  director of photography Jacques Girault where Leo works up a sweat that leaves him spent and briefly, soothingly oblivious. There are scenes with three separate doctors, each in Leo’s view trying to put limits on his existence.

Still, the moments that hit hardest concern Leo’s relationship with Ahd (a very fine Eric Bernard), another male hustler who claims he’s only “gay 4 pay.” Of course, it’s this impossible object of desire who becomes Leo’s obsession. Maritaud, so good in BPM, achieves a wrenching poignancy with Bernard that cuts to the core of the film. In a world increasingly closed-off to feeling, Leo continues to search for another heart as open as his. A futile odyssey? Maybe. But despite the film’s blind alleys and repetitive dips into the moral abyss, <em>Sauvage/Wild</em> makes Leo’s yearning palpable and profound.

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