With intriguing echoes of Agnès Varda’s 1985 drama Sans Toit Ni Loi (Vagabond) throughout, Sauvage leaves a lasting impression. French writer-director Camille Vidal-Naquet’s assured and often bracing debut feature follows a young, unnamed gay hustler (Félix Maritaud) who wanders the streets of Strasbourg, looking for his next client and yearning for something he hasn’t yet defined. He’s different from many of his rent boy acquaintances. “It’s like you enjoy being a whore,” gay-for-pay Ahd (Eric Bernard) throws in his direction. “So?” he replies.
The film and its narrative don’t reinvent anything but its frankness is to be applauded. The observational, handheld camera offers a non-judgemental and un-romanticised insight into the community of male prostitution and the hustler lifestyle. Some may find the lack of narrative momentum trying at times, but it both mirrors our protagonist’s lifestyle and succeeds in conveying a vivid sense of a cycle not easily broken. The depiction of sex will certainly spark conversation, as some graphic scenes feel somewhat boundary-pushing for a more mainstream release. One specific scene of sexual degradation is particularly difficult to watch. Not that it’s all doom and gloom: Vidal-Naquet adds moments of levity and warmth, with the excellently-handled audience-wrongfooting opening, and a one-on-one chat with an empathetic doctor (Marie Seux). This moment stands out for being deeply affecting and for its economical approach to storytelling, telling you everything you need to know about Maritaud’s character in a few replies, looks and one beautiful gesture.
Maritaud is mesmerising in the central role, bringing an unpredictability and vulnerability to this bruised (in all senses of word) young man. The script crucially never delves into the character’s backstory, thereby avoiding pop psychology; the trade-off is that some of the character’s actions can appear initially confounding. It’s testament to both the first-time director and Maritaud’s talents that you care as much as you do for the wellbeing of someone who is so intent on his freedom that it ruptures social norms and at times seems masochistic.
Sauvage | Directed by Camille Vidal-Naquet (France, 2018), with Félix Maritaud, Eric Bernard. Starts November 29.
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