With Sauvage, writer/director Camille Vidal-Naquet creates a film that refuses to be overcome – not to prurient sexual displays, not to emotional manipulation, not to bleakness. This realist telling of a homeless male sex worker’s life is many things, but never is it exploitative. But most exciting is Vidal-Naquet’s achievement in crafting a story that shirks tidiness or the dishonesty of an overly pat, definitively complete character arc. The film is a dark night of the soul where personal demons might always remain to haunt, where darkness has as much potential undertow as optimism. From Sauvage’s vantage, the human spirit is a transitional creature.
The film follows Félix Maritaud as Léo, a hustler whose soul safety is among an unpredictable community of sex workers and addicts. We witness Léo as sleepless night turns to day and back again on aimless streets and in anonymous homes. Unspectacularly, his sexual experiences range from the mundane to the humane to the body-breaking, with each outcome as likely as the other from the outset. He steals to eat, relies on luck and kindness of strangers to aid his ailing body and spirit. Escape feels possible, but a more punishing outcome feels increasingly inevitable.
Sauvage depicts Léo’s blurring days with grace and compassionate brutality. There is delicacy to how Vidal-Naquet captures his sexual interactions. It’s frank but not bent on indulgence, explicit without dipping into titilating or shaming tactics. As Léo circumstances create more of a vacuum for his sense of self, the film’s dominant traits remain humane. The film may seem a touch too passively observant, but that unobtrusiveness allows its humanity to arise organically and with some element of surprise.
This might make Léo a frustrating cipher in the hands of a director with less emotional intelligence. But here the character is developed meticulously to reveal a young man who has subsumed himself by design, both as a means of survival and a primal urge. Maritaud is often shockingly real, adapting to the moment in front of him to escape the one before it. He plays Léo as if he’s naturally unaware of consequence in a subconscious effort shut out a dread that would consume him. The effect is sometimes devastating, but it’s always fascinating enough to have us on edge for when the veil will inevitably fall.
By the film’s closing passage, Sauvage becomes a graceful meditation on the pull of the void in the face of trauma. Wisely without judgment, it’s a sexual study of uncommon soulfulness that makes Vidal-Naquet and Maritaud emerging talents to watch.