Writer-director Camille Vidal-Naquet’s debut feature presents an empathetic and humane window on to the lives of sex workers. In Sauvage, the viewer is brought immediately face-to-face with this often forgotten domain through naturalistic cinematography and dingy production design. The film’s spontaneity and ‘lived-in’ atmosphere removes all barriers between the audience and sex workers on screen. This is a stark and visceral reminder of an underground world, filled with real people who are usually wilfully ignored.
Matching protagonist Léo’s (Félix Maritaud) attitude towards the men he sees, the film features little judgement or distanciation in its tender close-ups and straightforward depiction of masculine physicality. Rather than maintaining an aloof coolness, Léo desperately searches for love and affection within every meeting. As he casually follows his clients’ leads, the tone of his encounters shifts wildly. From the amusing opening featuring ‘doctor and patient’ role play, to the practicalities of visiting a disabled client, or a sweaty threesome, Sauvage intensely recreates the varied demands of a modern sex worker – whether sexy, boring, dangerous or somewhere in between – with Léo always yearning for something more.
His dream-like naiveté prickles against the film’s realism, though. Léo feels like a primitive fairy tale character who has fallen down a very bleak rabbit hole. Maritaud absorbs himself into this almost fantastical persona, reacting instinctively with immature passion throughout the film, as Léo obliviously follows every tragic impulse. There is never a tomorrow. His doe-eyed innocence encourages empathy, but, as the film progresses, the sense of urgency in his precarious situation grows ever stronger. Léo struggles to find somewhere to sleep, let alone to live, and his pasty skin is pallid beneath increasingly filthy clothes. His chest cough just won’t budge. This handsome youth appears to disintegrate before our eyes – one cough and bead of sweat at a time, even as he continues throwing himself into his work.
Beneath Léo’s encounters with his clients, though, Sauvage successfully explores what it means to desire affection and security, whilst aching to retain one’s freedom. Ultimately, the film’s only real stumbling block is in its closing moments, where, much alike its main character, it is unable to reconcile these contradictory thoughts. With a few false endings, Vidal-Naquet’s debut comes to rest on the most poetic and romantic conclusion, which is also, sadly, the most predictable. Fortunately, this does not detract from the film’s frank and affecting portrayal of sex work, or Maritaud’s phenomenal performance.
Sauvage is released in cinemas on 1st March 2019.